France confirms death of al Qaeda chief Abou Zeid

This still image from a propaganda video shows Abou Zeid, the Algerian-born leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
CBS News

PARIS The al Qaeda-linked warlord Abou Zeid was killed in combat with French-led troops in Mali in February, France said Saturday, ending weeks of uncertainty about whether one of the group's leading commanders in the region was dead.

In a statement Saturday the office of French President Francois Hollande said the death was "definitively confirmed" and that the killing "marks an important step in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel."

Chad's president had said earlier this month that Chadian troops killed Abou Zeid while fighting to dislodge his al Qaeda affiliate in northern Mali. French officials have maintained for weeks that the Algerian was "probably" dead but waited to conduct DNA tests to verify.

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, thought to be 47, was a pillar of the southern realm of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, responsible for the death of at least two European hostages and a leader of the extremist takeover of the north.

The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants linked to him and others who had imposed harsh Islamic rule and who are seen as an international terrorist threat.

Abou Zeid was killed in operations in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali in late February, the statement from Hollande's office said.

One analyst warned that Abou Zeid's death will not significantly weaken AQIM, as some analysts predict, and may in fact lead to greater unity among its factions.

Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, described AQIM's organization as a set of insulated cells under the larger al Qaeda umbrella, which existed independently of each other.

The region of Mali — known in the group's parlance as the "emirate of the Sahara" — was divided between units loyal to Abou Zeid and those loyal to his rival, Moktar Belmoktar, the international terrorist who led the attack on the Ain Amenas gas plant that left 36 foreigners dead in Algeria earlier this year.

Chad's military chief has claimed that his troops killed Belmoktar, but France has not confirmed the death and many analysts say they don't believe it.

Rouiller said the likely scenario is that Abou Zeid's longtime associate, Yahya Abou El-Hammam, will take over control of his brigade. For years, Hammam acted as the go-between when Abou Zeid wanted to communicate with Belmoktar, suggesting he likely had a good relationship with Belmoktar.

"Especially if Hammam takes over, there could be a chance for a better coordinated relationship with Moktar Belmoktar," Rouiller said. "In terms of controlling Mali, the death of Abou Zeid could mean more cooperation between the arms of AQIM."

Abou Zeid's brigade, believe to be one of the most violent in al Qaeda's North African franchise, was thought to be holding four French nationals kidnapped two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. The fate of those hostages, working for French company Areva, was unclear.