The Pentagon is assessing the results of an air strike that occurred this weekend against a terrorist target in the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya. Meanwhile, Libyan officials stated that veteran Al Qaeda kingpin Mokhtar Belmokhta, who orchestrated the deadly 2013 attack on a massive oil complex in Algeria, was indeed killed in the air strike, along with “a number” of other Libyan terrorists.
The one eyed star of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been a hard target to say the least. Multiple reports have surfacing of him being killed over the last half decade, often times during fighting in Mali. None have proven to be accurate.
His uncanny ability to survive over a terror career spanning more than three decades is said to be due to his ability to melt into the local populace, taking wives throughout the region. He is considered to be one of the most hardened and experienced terrorists in the world, as he learned to fight with the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
Known as a highly charismatic leader with a strong and dedicated following, Belmokhta is also an entrepreneur of sorts, running a massive cigarette smuggling ring to fund his terrorist acts. This has garnered him the nickname “The Marlboro Man” among international counter-terror and intelligence units.
Foxtrot Alpha reported two weeks ago that USAF F-15Es have been flying shadowy extremely long-range sorties over the Northern Africa recently, presumably hunting for someone. A target like Belmokhta, who has blood from many countries on his hands including the U.S., would have been a high value target worth such a complex undertaking. The New York Times has confirmed that F-15Es were the aircraft involved in this high-priority air strike and that multiple bombs were dropped on the target area.
Interestingly enough, just last week, F-15Es from the same unit that flew the sortie two weeks ago were forward deployed to Aviano AFB in northern Italy for ‘training.’ This locale would bring them within much closer striking distance of Libya than flying 12 plus hour sorties from England. Still, there is no confirmation on what unit actually executed this weekend’s air strike and F-15Es from every operational U.S. Air Force squadron that flies the type are known to deploy in small detachments to Europe, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
Supposedly this weekend’s air strike was ordered based on new intelligence garnered within the last 48 to 72 hours and with approval from the recognized, albeit semi deposed, Libyan government. The New York Times also states that the Strike Eagles were aided by unmanned U.S. intelligence aircraft that tracked the terrorist from the skies. This makes sense as Predator drones are known to be operating over Libya and Northern Africa.
Under such a scenario, sometimes called a ‘hammer toss,’ an unmanned aircraft will scout the target area and relay real-time intelligence to commanders who can then order the strike. The manned aircraft are then vectored in and used as bomb trucks to deliver their large payload on a single pass, decimating the target. After-action bomb damage assessment is made in near real-time via the unmanned aircraft’s video feed, at which point in time, follow-up attacks can be ordered.
The Pentagon is urging caution when it comes to declaring the target in question killed in the strike, which is understandable considering Belmokhta’s elusive past. If he was indeed killed it will have little effect on Libya’s civil war and could actually help the rise of ISIS in that country and the region overall. Al Qaeda and ISIS remain two distinct ‘brands’ on Islamic extremists in Northern Africa, and both compete for power, recruits, income and material. Thus weakening one could strengthen the other. This is not to say that such a high value target would not be worth striking because it clearly would.
Regardless of what has become an ever increasingly chaotic and violent power struggle in Libya, the news that such a well known and experienced terrorist, one that is still highly active, was successfully eliminated in an attack would be a national security triumph and a win for the Obama Administration which could use one when it comes to the War On Terror right now. It would hopefully also bring some degree of closure to the dozens of families who had loved ones killed by Belmokhta over the past 30 years.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.