By Myra MacDonald
LONDON Jan 17 Mokhtar Belmokhtar lost an eye
fighting in Afghanistan, swears allegiance to al Qaeda and named
his son after Osama bin Laden.
As the assumed mastermind behind the seizure of foreign
hostages at a gas plant in the Sahara, he has put Algeria back
on the map of global jihad 20 years after its civil war made the
country the theatre of a bloody Islamist struggle for power.
He has also burnished his jihadi credentials by showing that
al Qaeda remains a potent threat to Western interests despite
the death of its leader in Pakistan in 2011. And he has proved
that a French military operation against his fellow Islamists in
neighbouring Mali will not be contained within one country.
"He is a true believer in the cause," said Aaron Zelin, an
al Qaeda expert at the Washington Institute for Near East
A statement from Belmokhtar's Mulathameen group claiming
responsibility for Wednesday's hostage-taking - which Algeria
said its forces had ended on Thursday in an assault on the plant
- demanded that France stop its military operations in Mali.
It also cited the battle being waged by al Qaeda-linked
insurgents against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and
condemned Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - highlighting
the many fronts on which al Qaeda is now fighting, despite the
erosion of its central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Born in central Algeria, Belmokhtar fought with the
mujahideen in Afghanistan before returning home to join a civil
war that broke out after the cancellation in 1992 of elections
that Islamists looked set expected to win.
He has been heavily involved with kidnapping and smuggling -
which earned him the nickname "Marlboro Man" - leading some to
suggest he was drifting away from a commitment to jihad in
favour of making money from crime.
But with many militant groups around the world, including,
for example, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, raising
funding for their operations through crime, analysts suggest the
depiction of him as a criminal may be exaggerated.
"These characterisations of him as exclusively or largely
being just a criminal, there has never been real support for
it," said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who has closely
tracked developments in Mali.
"He has a very long jihadist pedigree."
In a rare interview with a Mauritanian news service in late
2011, Belmokhtar paid homage to bin Laden and his successor,
Ayman al Zawahri.
He also cited traditional global preoccupations of al Qaeda,
including Iraq, Afghanistan and the fate of Palestinians, and
stressed the need to "attack Western and Jewish economic and
Belmokhtar was inspired, according to the Jamestown
Foundation think tank, by the late Jordanian-Palestinian scholar
Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden's mentor and a man whose ideology
still has a powerful hold on the jihadi movement.
He probably went to Afghanistan after Azzam's death in
Pakistan in 1989, narrowly missing an opportunity to join the
jihad against the Russians who withdrew that year, and instead
fighting with the mujahideen against the government in Kabul.
Once back in Algeria, he joined a group that fought in the
civil war against the military-backed authorities in Algiers and
launched spectacular attacks on French interests in the 1990s.
The group would mutate several times to eventually become al
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - nowadays probably the
wealthiest of the al Qaeda branches after reaping millions of
dollars in ransom money paid quietly for the release of previous
hostages. It and allied groups are now the targets of the French
military operation in Mali.
Belmokhtar has been the object of persistent speculation
that he may have split from AQIM due to rivalries with other
commanders, notably Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid.
Such is the secrecy and lack of knowledge about AQIM, and
the amount of disinformation believed to have been spread by
various intelligence agencies seeking to break the group, that
there is no way of knowing for sure.
But Lebovich said talk of deadly rivalries between the two
appeared to be overblown.
"We know they are rivals," he said. "My reading, however, is
that they, or their personnel, cooperate, or at least share
resources and space, more frequently than people think."
Zelin, who tracks online forums closely, said AQIM appeared
to have carried out a "controlled fragmentation" to strengthen
itself against ethnic divisions by making way for different
commanders to rise to the top of different groups.
Whatever the operational links between Belmokhtar and those
fighting the French in Mali, it was clear the assault on the
desert gas plant, which is likely to have had strong security,
was carefully planned - almost certainly before French troops
arrived last week.
"We know attacks like these take reconnaissance, target
selection, training and manpower. It would be very high-risk,"
said Henry Wilkinson of the Risk Advisory Group consultancy.
He said the attack would prompt counter-terrorism
specialists to take Belmokhtar's group more seriously as an al
Qaeda-type organisation rather than a criminal syndicate:
"It suggests a much deeper long-term issue is at play."
Anis Rahamani, editor of the Algerian daily Ennahar, said
Belmokhtar saw Algeria's south, with its high youth
unemployment, as a recruiting ground.
"So Belmokhtar's action is also aimed at attracting and
hiring more young Algerians."
Details of the Algerian operation on Thursday remained
unclear, although an Algerian security source said 30 hostages
had been killed, of whom at least eight were Algerian and seven
foreign, including two Britons, two Japanese and a French
The gunmen who stormed the gas facility on Wednesday had
said they were holding 41 foreigners. The British oil firm BP
and Norway's Statoil run the plant jointly with
the Algerian state oil company.
In moving so quickly against the hostage-takers, Algeria,
scarred by the civil war, which claimed 200,000 lives, appeared
determined to deny Belmokhtar the drawn-out siege that would
have raised his standing even further.
"We say that, in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today
as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no
respite in the struggle against terrorism," said Communication
Minister Mohamed Said, according to the state news agency APS.