STUTTGART, Germany — The one-eyed Algerian insurgent known as “Mr. Marlboro” has been declared dead many times before, only to reappear in remote parts of northern Africa, where al-Qaida-affiliated groups have gained a foothold.

The latest claim — that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was killed during military operations in Mali over the weekend by Chadian forces — was quickly disputed by a paticipant in militant website discussions, Reuters reported, citing the SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzes terrorist networks.

However, if his death is confirmed, his elimination could serve as a major blow to al-Qaida-affiliated militants in northern Africa, according to experts.

Among Islamic militants operating in Mali, Belmokhtar was one of “very few resourceful, Afghan-trained commanders” who possessed some 22 years of experience in armed activism stretching from Afghanistan and Algeria to operations across the Sahel, according to Omar Ashour, an analyst with the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

“If the reports are correct this time (this is the fifth time Belmokhtar is declared dead), it will be a major loss for both AQ/AQIM for several reasons,” Ashour said in an email.

Belmokhtar’s brigade, one of four al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb-affiliated tactical units that operate in the Sahara “emirate,” was responsible for slightly more than 50 percent of the attacks in the emirate’s southern region since 2003, according to Ashour.

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, another AQIM deputy, also was killed in recent days in Mali, according to multiple news reports. If those reports are accurate, Zeid’s death is likely “due to defectors-turned-informants from Ansar al-Din, one of the three major organizations fighting in North Mali,” Ashour stated.

A major strategy of AQIM is to embed itself in the local population, marrying locals and taking up local causes. “In times of crises, these alliances don’t hold (that has been a pattern), especially among organization[s] that newly turned ‘Islamist,’ like the Ansar,” Ashour stated.

Still, the struggle with AQIM is far from over, Ashour said.

Belmokhtar, 40, has been a key player inside al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb for years, but he has largely operated in obscurity. That changed in January WITH the brazen attack on a gas plant in Algeria that resulted in the deaths of more than 30 hostages. Belmokhtar was believed to be behind that attack, which was allegedly in retaliation for France’s intervention in neighboring Mali, where AQIM has increased its presence in the past year.

Known as Mr. Marlboro for his years of cigarette smuggling in the border regions of the Sahara Desert, French intelligence services in 2002 described Belmokhtar as “uncatchable.”

In January, France launched a surprise intervention in Mali as part of an effort to push insurgents from strongholds in the country’s north. Troops from about 13 west African nations also are helping in the effort to secure northern Mali, which has been in turmoil since last year’s coup led by a U.S.-trained Malian army officer. Political unrest in the country allowed insurgent groups, including AQIM, to establish havens in northern Mali.

For its part, the U.S. has been providing intelligence and logistical support to French and African forces.

Last month, about 100 U.S. combat-armed troops deployed to the West African nation of Niger as part of an effort to provide “intelligence sharing” capabilities with French troops operating in Mali. U.S. Africa Command has positioned unarmed drones in Niger to support a range of regional security missions.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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