ALGIERS, Algeria – Troops killed one of North Africa's most wanted Islamic militants, who had sought to link his bloody insurgent movement in Algeria to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network, the military said Sunday.
The death of Nabil Sahraoui (search), head of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (search), marked a major victory for Algerian government efforts to suppress Islamic militant violence and left his armed extremist organization with no clear leader.
Sahraoui and three of his lieutenants were killed in a "vast anti-terrorist operation" that continues in the Kabylie region (search) east of the capital, Algiers, the army general staff said in a statement.
The sweep by army units "killed numerous criminals. Among these terrorists figures the criminal Nabil Sahraoui," the statement said. Newspaper reports said Sahraoui was killed late Thursday or early Friday.
The Salafist Group, known by its French acronym GSPC, is one of two groups that have led a violent insurgency against Algeria's military-backed government since 1992. More than 120,000 Algerians have been killed in insurgent violence and government campaigns to suppress it.
It and the Armed Islamic Group (search), from which it split in 1998, are blamed for bombings, rapes and massacres. But the Salafists have been diminished in recent months under government offensives.
Sahraoui, who was in his mid- to late-30s, took over leadership of the Salafist group last year and declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda.
That raised concerns that the Salafists could become a dangerous affiliate of Al Qaeda and launch terrorist attacks beyond their North African territory.
Sahraoui is not known to have been behind attacks outside Algeria. But bin Laden's network has made inroads into Algeria. A Yemeni Al Qaeda lieutenant, Emad Abdelwahid Ahmed Alwan, was killed in a September 2002 gunbattle about 270 miles east of Algiers. Authorities said he had met with Salafists and was managing operations for Al Qaeda in North Africa.
Sahraoui's death left open the possibility of a leadership fight within the Salafists.
Among the militants killed along with Sahraoui was Abbi Abdelaziz, also known as "Okacha the paratrooper," who had been seen as a potential successor. The army said troops also netted weapons, munitions and documents in the sweep.
The Salafists' actual strength is unknown, although experts believe the group is small, with several hundred fighters, and is fragmented into autonomous brigades. The State Department added the group to its list of foreign terrorist groups in 2002.
"The influence of the GSPC has been steadily eroded by security initiatives within Algeria, in the pan-Sahara region and of course within Europe," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
Sahraoui's death "will leave a little bit of a vacuum within the GSPC, particularly internally within Algeria, and may make it difficult for them to resuscitate," he said in a telephone interview.
Sahraoui had a reputation for ruthlessness, stemming partly from a campaign of killings he ran against a now-defunct insurgent group, the Islamic Salvation Army (search), after it called a cease-fire with the Algerian government in 1997.
The daily Liberte said a forensic police team identified Sahraoui's body. The newspaper Le Soir said nearly 3,000 soldiers were involved in the sweep in wooded mountains in the Bejaia region of Kabylie, some 160 miles east of Algiers.
Sahraoui took over from longtime leader Hassan Hattab, who reportedly was viewed as too moderate by some Salafists. Under Hattab, the Salafists distrusted outsiders and kept Al Qaeda at arms length, focusing instead on their domestic agenda of combating the government.
One newspaper reported in May that Hattab was later judged and executed by his one-time followers. But other reports said he was merely cast aside.
Another Salafist leader, Amari Saifi, is in the hands of a rebel group in Chad that captured him and wants ransom from Algeria or the West, according to officials in a country involved in the situation.
A one-time special forces paratrooper, Saifi was the Salafists' No. 2 and is wanted in the killings of 43 Algerian soldiers and the kidnappings of 32 European tourists in 2003.
Islamic insurgents have been fighting to topple the military-backed government for a dozen years. The insurgency began after the army canceled 1992 legislative elections to thwart a Muslim fundamentalist party from victory. An estimated 120,000 people have been killed.