Africa

Profile: Abdelhamid Abou Zeid

This Al-Andalus image grab taken on September 30, 2010 from a video released today shows Abu Zeid (L), also known as Abid Hammadou, posing with fighters of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Image caption Abou Zeid (L) had a reputation as being one of the most violent al-Qaeda commanders in the region

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, whose death has been confirmed by the French government, was one of the most senior leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

As with other militants operating in the Sahel desert region that crosses the borders of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, details of his life were hard to confirm.

But he gained a reputation as one of AQIM's most feared and radical commanders, held responsible for murdering hostages, and for imposing ruthless Islamist rule on the historic Malian city of Timbuktu.

He was said to be close to AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, and was given a prominent role in the group's activities in the Sahara.

Thought to be in his late 40s, Abou Zeid sometimes used an alias, Mosab Abdelouadoud, and also had a nickname, the little emir, that referred to his short stature.

The Algerian media raised doubts over his legal name, identifying him as either Abid Hamadou or Mohamed Ghedir.

Abou Zeid fought in the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s in his home country, Algeria. He became a member of a Salafist organisation known as the Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), which in 2007 changed its name to AQIM.

In recent years AQIM, suffering setbacks at the hands of the Algerian military in the north, focused more of its efforts in southern Algeria and across its desert borders.

Abou Zeid was reputedly involved in the smuggling networks that proliferate in the area, as well as playing a key role in a series of kidnappings of Western hostages that raised tens of millions of dollars in ransom money.

He has been linked to the killing of British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and that of Frenchman Michel Germaneau the following year.

One hostage who was released, former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, recounted in a book how Abou Zeid refused to give medicine to two other hostages who were suffering from dysentery, and one of whom had been bitten by a scorpion.

After Islamist groups seized control of northern Mali in 2012, Abou Zeid is said to have taken command of Timbuktu.

The Islamists sought to impose an extreme form of Sharia, destroying Sufi shrines and carrying out amputations.

They were forced back after the French military launched an operation to retake northern Mali in January.

As Abou Zeid retreated, he reportedly took a number of blindfolded Western hostages in his convoy.

His death in the mountains of northern Mali was initially reported by an Algerian TV station at the end of February.

Chadian President Idriss Deby said troops from Chad, who were searching for militants in the area alongside French forces, had killed Abou Zeid.

But France delayed confirming the death until it formally identified Abou Zeid through DNA samples, French newspaper Le Monde reported.

"The elimination of one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel," said French President Francois Hollande.