BAMAKO, Mali, March 25 (UPI) -- Two months after French forces intervened in Mali, al-Qaida and its allies are under heavy pressure in the country's northern mountains.
One of al-Qaida's top commanders has been killed, another's reported dead and the group is calling for foreign jihadists to come to its aid rather than join Islamists fighting in Syria's civil war.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Arab name for North Africa, has been pushed into the Adrar des Ifoghas of northern Mali since the French, later joined by Chadian troops, launched their offensive Jan. 11 to crush the jihadist stronghold in the region.
The Islamist forces have reportedly suffered hundreds of casualties and been forced to engage in a guerilla war of hit-and-run attacks against the 1,200 French and 800 Chadian troops conducting the counterinsurgency Operation Serval (Wildcat) in the forbidding mountain terrain.
AQIM's field commander, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid of Algeria, was reported killed by Chadians Feb. 28 in the Afoghas, a barren region near Mali's border with Algeria, and the French confirmed this Saturday through DNA tests.
Another commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian veteran of the 1970-89 war in Afghanistan against the invading Russians and Algeria's ferocious civil war in the 1990s, has also been reported killed in combat. But there has been no confirmation from any source that Belmokhtar, a longtime rival of Abou Zeid, is indeed dead.
Jihadist websites said March 3 Belmokhtar was alive but nothing's been heard from him. Algerian and other sources say Belmokhtar was probably killed with Abou Zeid in February.
Algeria's Ennahar TV reported Sunday that AQIM's overall leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, aka Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, who is based in the mountains of northern Algeria, had named a new commander to replace Abou Zeid.
He was selected Djamel Okacha, another Algerian veteran, who is reportedly close to Droukdel as both belonged to the Group of Algiers which comprises militants born in the region around the country's capital on the Mediterranean, as al-Qaida's leader in the area.
"Okacha is Droukdel's right-hand man," said an Algerian security source. He observed that Okacha's priority is undoubtedly to reorganize AQIM forces in Mali after losing two experienced combat leaders.
The probable loss of Belmokhtar may well be the more serious, since he was an important link to al-Qaida's roots in that conflict. He was the mastermind of the Jan. 16 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in Algeria's southeastern desert near the border with Libya, where he had been based.
His fighters held the installation for four days with scores of foreign hostages until the Algerian army stormed the site, killing most of the 40 attackers. More than 40 foreign captives were slain.
The attack was widely seen at the time as retaliation for the French intervention in Mali but security analysts say that the motivation for the attack, the first against Algeria's all-important energy industry despite the ferocity of the country's civil war, remains poorly understood.
Some suggest Belmokhtar may have been challenging the authority of Droukdel, with whom he had long been quarreling.
Droukdel remains holed up in his redoubt in northern Algeria and may be having difficulties communicating with AQIM forces in northern Mali.
Whatever his relationships with Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar, their loss represents a major setback for the jihadists. The extent of that setback could go some way to explaining AQIM's March 17 appeal to other jihadists to come to its aid.
The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank that monitors global terrorism, said the statement was apparently aimed at North African Islamists.
"The message clearly targeted those North African youths -- mainly Tunisians -- who are flocking to fight in Syria, as they did a few years ago in Iraq," analyst Camille Tawil wrote in the foundation's publication Terrorism Monitor.
The appeal suggests "AQIM may be suffering from battlefield losses and a declining number of recruits, a situation exacerbated by the appeal of Syria to potential jihadists ...
"There are already reports the Tunisian border with Algeria is seeing an increased level of activity by Islamic militants smuggling weapons and men, an indication AQIM is preparing to renew operations in northern Algeria," Tawil observed.