The North African terror group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb named a new operational commander in Mali over the weekend as France confirmed the death of his predecessor.
According to Algerian media reports, Djamel Okacha was named to replace Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who was killed in a U.N.-backed, French-led military campaign in Mali last month.
Mr. Okacha, 34, known by his nom de guerre, Yahia Abu El Hamam, is a veteran extremist and close personal associate of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel. His appointment has yet to be confirmed by AQIM’s Shura Council leadership, Algeria’s Ennaha TV reported.
If confirmed, the new leader will take charge of the al Qaeda affiliate’s operations in both southern Algeria and northern Mali, where it seized a vast swath of desert territory last year but has been expelled this year from all the towns it captured in a counteroffensive by a French-led African military force.
The news of the appointment came as France confirmed the death of Mr. Okacha’s predecessor, Abou Zeid, 46.
French President Francois Hollande “confirms with certainty Abdelhamid Abou Zeid’s death during fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali in late February,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.
Abou Zeid’s death was first announced March 1 by Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, whose army is fighting alongside French troops to secure Mali’s vast desert north.
Two days later, the Chadian army also announced it had killed the one-eyed Algerian extremist and bandit Mokhtar Belmokhtar, another leading figure in al Qaeda’s North African branch.
But France has not confirmed the death of Belmokhtar, who split from al Qaeda last year and masterminded a January raid on an Algerian gas plant that left 38 hostages dead.
The confirmed death of Abu Zeid, who raised millions of dollars from the kidnapping of Western hostages, deals a hard blow to AQIM and marks an important victory in the French-led campaign against al Qaeda in the Sahel — the vast borderland between the Sahara Desert and sub-Saharan, tropical Africa, encompassing several nations in which radicals are on the rise.
Reuters news agency, citing an anonymous security source, reported that Mr. Okacha joined AQIM in 2004 and is believed to have participated in the 2009 killing of American aid worker Christopher Leggett.
Algerian security sources said earlier they believed Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar were together when they were killed.
“I strongly believe that Belmokhtar is dead,” the security source told Reuters.
Earlier this month, Jihadist messaging reported by the SITE intelligence group, which monitors extremist websites, rejected reports that Belmoktar was dead and promised he soon would release audio or visual proof he was still alive.
No such message has yet been released.