The U.S. likely killed an al Qaeda leader Saturday night during an airstrike in Libya, though a Pentagon investigation into the strike is ongoing.
Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the initial assessment is that the strike on a building in Eastern Libya successfully killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, its target, but that he couldn’t yet confirm the terrorist’s death as the post-strike assessment is still ongoing.
Mr. Belmokhtar maintained an allegiance to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and served as the founder and the operational leader of Al Murabitun, an al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group in Northwest Africa.
“We are continuing to assess the results of the operation and will provide more details as appropriate,” Mr. Warren said in a statement.
The strike was conducted by two F-15s armed with precision munition. When asked why an unmanned drone wasn’t used — as is typical in these types of operations — Col. Warren said that the F-15 was determined to be the best platform given the type of target.
Mr. Belmokhtar was behind the 2013 hostage crisis at In-Amenas, Algeria, that killed 38 people from 10 countries, including three Americans, the Pentagon statement said.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has about 1,000 members in Algeria, as well as smaller cells in Libya, Nigeria and Tunisia, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The terrorist group, which began as an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group, joined with al Qaeda in 2000 to increase recruiting and fundraising.
While Mr. Belmokhtar was no longer an active member of al Qaeda, having split off to form his own terrorist cell, Col. Warren said his maintained allegiance to al Qaeda gave the U.S. legal authority under the 2001 authorization for the use of military force to conduct the strike. Col. Warren said the U.S. also coordinated with the Libyan government on the strike.