Report

Will the U.S. Go After Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Network?

The reported killing of the al Qaeda mastermind in Libya has officials in Washington wondering how far to take the fight against America's enemies in North Africa.

Chadian soldiers show a flag of Aqim and weapons recovered after violent clashes with Islamist militants on March 3, 2013 in Tessalit in the Ifoghas mountains, northern Mali. Chad says its troops in northern Mali have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded an assault on an Algerian gas plant in January that left 37 foreign hostages dead.  The announcement came amid continued fighting in the mountains of northern Mali, where France on Sunday said a third French soldier had been killed since it launched operations against Islamist rebels in mid-January. AFP PHOTO / ALI KAYA        (Photo credit should read ALI KAYA/AFP/Getty Images)
Chadian soldiers show a flag of Aqim and weapons recovered after violent clashes with Islamist militants on March 3, 2013 in Tessalit in the Ifoghas mountains, northern Mali. Chad says its troops in northern Mali have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded an assault on an Algerian gas plant in January that left 37 foreign hostages dead. The announcement came amid continued fighting in the mountains of northern Mali, where France on Sunday said a third French soldier had been killed since it launched operations against Islamist rebels in mid-January. AFP PHOTO / ALI KAYA (Photo credit should read ALI KAYA/AFP/Getty Images)

Jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s death in a weekend airstrike in Libya, if confirmed, presents U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration with both a tantalizing opportunity and a complicated choice.

The opportunity will be to pummel the al-Mulathameen Brigade hard before the group has had a chance to adapt to the loss of its inspirational leader. But first, the White House and its top military commanders at the Pentagon must decide whether to make crushing the group a priority.

It’s a complex question. The little-known group has been responsible for an array of attacks, including a January 2013 strike on a gas facility in the Algerian desert in which 38 foreign hostages — including three Americans — died. Belmohktar’s fighters are considered to be some of al Qaeda’s most skilled battlefield allies. At the same time, Washington has finite military and intelligence resources, and policymakers may prefer to focus them against al Qaeda’s Yemeni and North African affiliates, which are thought to pose a more direct threat to the United States and its interests abroad. The administration just scored a significant win in that fight, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s Yemeni franchise, confirming Tuesday that a U.S. drone strike late last week killed its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

Belmokhtar had been a leading figure in North Africa’s jihadi scene for many years, but in 2013 he and others broke with al Qaeda’s franchise there, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to form the al-Mulathameen Brigade. Despite his rift with AQIM, Belmokhtar retained his allegiance to, and links with, al Qaeda’s leadership, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an expert on North African Islamist militants with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Belmokhtar’s group functioned as “al Qaeda’s special forces,” conducting operations in Algeria, Mali, and Niger, he said.

The United States has its own special operations forces in North and West Africa. A Joint Special Operations Command task force, with strike forces and leadership provided by Delta Force, has twice captured leading militants in Libya. It is likely — but not confirmed — that the task force laid the groundwork for the weekend’s airstrike, which was conducted by two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets that dropped two to four 500-pound bombs. A senior administration official told Foreign Policy that President Obama approved the mission.

If the initial reports are accurate, Belmokhtar’s death would create a void in the militant leadership and certainly have “a short-term impact” on the jihadis that U.S. forces should exploit, said Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn (ret.), a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “We should put more pressure on the network now, instead of waiting for it to respond, because it will respond,” he said.

That’s a strategy Flynn knows well. The general was the intelligence director for JSOC when the secretive command eviscerated al Qaeda in Iraq by taking an approach very similar to what he is advocating now: striking at militant figures, then using the intelligence gained from such strikes to continue to hit the terror network again and again, never allowing the militants time to recover. “This is just a counter-network campaign in action,” Flynn said of the attack on Belmokhtar. “This is another demonstration that it takes a network to defeat a network.”

But to take down the network behind Belmokhtar, U.S. leaders will have to decide to take scarce assets — particularly those associated with intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance — away from other hunts that have become political priorities, even though the targets are figures who pose little threat to the West, said a current special operations officer with extensive African experience. He cited the example of the hunt for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa. “We put over the course of about five years probably ten times as much money against that thug, that rapist, as we did against people like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who truly had our own demise as his stated agenda,” the special operations officer said. “So if we finally got around to leveraging the resources necessary to give this guy a dirt nap, [it was] long overdue.”

Belmokhtar’s death, if confirmed, would be the second significant U.S. counterterrorism win in the past week alone. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terrorist group that is thought to pose the most direct threat to the United States, released a video on Twitter announcing Wuhayshi’s death and his replacement as leader by the group’s military commander, Qasm al-Rimi, according to SITE. The Yemeni group has attempted at least three attacks on the U.S. homeland, but none have been successful. The most famous was the failed attack against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set off explosives sewn into his underwear.

For its part, the White House issued a statement Tuesday saying the U.S. intelligence community had also concluded that Wuhayshi was dead. His death “strikes a major blow to AQAP,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in the statement. “While AQAP, al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates will remain persistent in their efforts to threaten the United States, our partners, and our interests, [Wuhayshi’s] death removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”

On Monday, shortly before the confirmation of Wuhayshi’s death, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said “as we know from the case of Osama bin Laden, killing al Qaeda commanders is not enough.”

“We can chase these fanatics to the gates of hell, but to win, we must destroy their terrorist sanctuaries and defeat their insidious ideology,” he added.

Photo credit: ALI KAYA/AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. @seandnaylor

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