Center for Strategic Communication

The body of a slain militant lies wedged in a rocky crevice reportedly in the rugged mountains of northern Mali. French sources have alternatively attributed the corpse in the photo to both Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid. Source: Paris Match.

The fate of fugitive al Qaeda affiliate Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the deadly terrorist assault against an Algerian gas plant in January, remains uncertain four days after senior Chadian officials declared him dead following pitched battles in northeastern Mali.

On March 4, a grainy photo obtained by RFI showed what Chadian soldiers claim is the corpse of Belmokhtar — however, an identical or very similar photograph was also used in the French magazine Paris Match, which claimed the corpse was that of top al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) commander Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid. Chadian authorities have also claimed to have killed Abou Zeid in a recent, but separate, clash in late February or early March. [See Threat Matrix, Conflicting accounts emerge over AQIM leader’s reported death.]

According to the Paris Match report, Chadian journalist Abdelnasser Garboa claimed that as soon as he saw the photograph he recognized the corpse “immediately” as belonging to Abou Zeid. A French and Chadian offensive against Islamist militants in the rugged mountains of northeastern Mali began around Feb. 22, and remains ongoing, although the heaviest clashes were reported just before March 2.

Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno has never swayed from his position that Chadian forces killed Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid in recent battles, but claimed he has prohibited his forces from displaying or photographing the corpses of militants, out of respect for Islamic values.

Confusion over the identity of the corpse depicted in the photos, specifically since it has been attributed to two separate al Qaeda leaders, has only hampered efforts to confirm the deaths of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid.

A militant claiming to be associated with al Qaeda was quick to denounce the photographs, noting that French and Chadian officials were unable to properly identify the dead man shown in the photo, and he maintained that Belmokhtar is alive and well leading battles near the beleaguered city of Gao, Mali, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. The alleged al Qaeda-affiliated fighter argued that the corpse in the photograph belongs to an unidentified Tuareg fighter, explaining that ethnic Tuaregs typically have a darker brown complexion, according to SITE.

It should be noted that the dust and blood-covered man in the photograph appears to fit the physical profile of Belmokhtar, and although the face is partially covered and is clearly saturated with blood from a head wound, what can be seen slightly resembles Belmokhtar, not Abou Zeid as proclaimed by Paris Match.

However, not all agree. Abdollah Mohamedi, the head of the jihadist-friendly, Mauritania-based Sahara Media, told France 24 News that the photos depicting a dead militant were not definitive proof that either Belmokhtar or Abou Zeid have been killed. Mohamedi argued that the corpse bore little resemblance to Belmokhtar. “The color of the beard is not right. We can’t identify the body from the way the beard is trimmed because a lot of jihadists trim their beard in the same pointy way,” Mohamedi said. “This could be the body of any jihadist.”

Mohamedi further indicated that Sahara Media had contacted an unnamed AQIM affiliate, who had confirmed that Abu Zeid was indeed killed but also claimed that Belmokhtar was alive and that he would soon issue a public declaration.

French officials remained cautious in assuming that either Belmokhtar or Abou Zeid had been killed. On March 4, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged that there was no “proof of death” of either Belmokhtar or Abou Zeid.