MIDDLE EAST

U.S. launches airstrike in Libya, targeting Al Qaeda associate

A U.S. airstrike in Libya targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a smuggler and kidnapper associated with Al Qaeda

American warplanes launched a weekend airstrike in Libya targeting Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a mercurial smuggler and kidnapper associated with Al Qaeda, U.S. military officials said Sunday.

Officials were assessing the results of the strike, which took place Saturday night. But local news outlets quoted members of Libya's internationally recognized government as saying that Belmokhtar had been killed. He is believed to be the architect of a deadly 2013 hostage attack on a natural gas facility in Algeria. 

“Belmokhtar has a long history of leading terrorist activities … and maintains his personal allegiance to Al Qaeda,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said in a statement. Belmokhtar posed “a continuing threat” to Americans, he added.

Few details have been released about the operation, but Belmokhtar had been in the U.S. military’s crosshairs for years.

The French government had nicknamed the Algerian militant "the Uncatchable."

He was once a commander of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and funneled insurgents into Iraq to battle U.S. forces. He’s also believed to have been behind the 2008 kidnapping of Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat and U.N. envoy who was held for 130 days.

Belmokhtar later ran his own operations in the Sahara region, but retained smuggling and other connections with Al Qaeda.

In 2013, he was the alleged mastermind of a plot to seize a natural gas refinery in Amenas, Algeria, that led to the deaths of at least 38 foreign captives from 10 countries, including three Americans. The intent was to seize foreigners and hold them in Mali for ransom.

There were 790 workers on the site, including 134 foreigners, most of whom were separated from the Algerian workers.

The incident drew world attention for five days, beginning with an assault by militants and ending when special forces captured the remaining extremists amid booby traps and a landscape of charred vehicles and scattered, disfigured bodies.

But Belmokhtar slipped away.

If the U.S. military found him in Libya, it would be notable. The U.S. has been hampered  in gathering intelligence there since the 2011 civil war that resulted in the death of former dictator Moammar Kadafi.

In the wake of the violence that still rages in the country, the White House closed the U.S. Embassy last year and pulled out 160 personnel.

Twitter: @wjhenn

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
73°