U.S. and Libyan officials confirmed Monday that two U.S. fighter planes dropped 225 kilogram bombs in Libya, targeting a former North African al-Qaida chief.
These were the first American airstrikes in Libya since the 2011 uprising against leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Washington acknowledged the strikes, but has not confirmed the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed legend tied to U.S.-categorized terror groups in the region.
The country's internationally-recognized government in Tobruk said Belmokhtar was among the dead in the bombings late Saturday in eastern Libya.
Terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Part of new alliance with Mali-based militant group MUJAO
Leads Masked Men Brigade
Former commander with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb
Accused of involvement in deadly gas plant attack in Algeria
Born in Algeria, received al-Qaida training in Afghanistan
Belmokhtar was known as a senior al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) official before starting his own group, Signers in Blood Battalion, in 2012. The group later merged with another in northern Mali to form al-Mourabitoun.
The U.S. State Department had posted a $5 million reward for Belmokhtar. Officials accused him of leading a 2013 terrorist attack on a gas facility in Algeria that killed 37 people, including three Americans. U.S. federal prosecutors charged Belmokhtar with multiple terrorism-related crimes after the bombing, including conspiring to support al-Qaida, using a weapon of mass destruction, and conspiring to take hostages.
"Anytime a leadership figure is removed, it certainly impacts the organization," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters in Washington, adding Belmokhtar was still affiliated with core al-Qaida members.
If confirmed, his death "will do little to address the broader chaos in Libya," said the Soufan Group, a New York-based security analysis firm, in a statement. But it "will remove a dangerous individual from a crowded battlefield and bring a sense of justice to the families of Belmokhtar’s many victims," the group added.
Libya has been in a state of political upheaval since a NATO-backed revolt pushed longtime dictator Gadhafi from power in 2011. Militants and militias have exploited the situation by grabbing territory as an internationally recognized government battles for power with one declared by Islamic militants.
"Now is a good time to have conducted this," assessed Jason Pack, president of Libya Analysis.
"Belmokhtar was tactically important, and capitalized on the country's political disintegration to firm up militant training, arms smuggling, and fighter recruitment," said Pack. Also known as Mr. Marlboro for heading a cigarette-smuggling operation, Belmokhtar was a "key thread in Libya's position in the global jihadi infrastructure," Pack said.
For that reason, the analyst expects the groups associated with him may launch a retaliatory attack in North Africa in the coming weeks.
The airstrikes are the largest show of U.S. force in Libya since the 2014 capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, wanted by Washington in connection with the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The move comes as U.N.-sponsored negotiations between Libyan factions resumes this week in Berlin.
But Pack said groups like AQIM, Islamic State, and Ansar al-Sharia will continue to work on destabilizing the country in order to continue their operations.
Rival governments in the capital Tripoli and the eastern city of Tobruk are locked in a nearly year-long struggle for control of the country. Without consistent rule of law, militant groups and Islamic State supporters who staged several publicized mass killings there since late 2014 have found a safe haven in Libya
Media reports indicate that Belmokhtar may have been attending a joint AQIM-Islamic State meeting during the U.S. airstrikes Saturday in Ajdabiya.