Abdelmalik Drukdal, the overall leader of AQIM, is said to have demoted Belmoktar late last year from his position as "emir of the Sahel." Belmoktar also feuded with a rival commander -- Abdelhamid Abou Zeid -- one of the most violent and radical figures in AQIM. More than most al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is divided into often competing groups.
To make money, "Belmoktar increasingly engaged in smuggling, earning the popular nickname 'Mr. Marlboro' ... he also was involved in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants," Filiu wrote in 2010.
The report of Belmoktar's death comes just one day after a U.S. official said Abou Zeid had been killed by French and Chadian forces.
The president of Chad said Chadian troops killed the commander, while French military sources said earlier that Abou Zeid, a deputy leader of AQIM, was killed in an airstrike in Mali late last month.
Abou Zeid was one of the group's most ruthless commanders, having seized at least a dozen foreigners for ransom. At least two have been killed; several French citizens remain captive.
"He was a senior influential member of AQIM, and his death represents a significant blow to AQIM's efforts to use West Africa, and Mali in particular, as a safe haven," the official, referring to Abou Zeid, told CNN.