Aug 12 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s north African wing is using the Sahara desert as a safe haven from which to launch attacks on Western targets.
The group has kidnapped several Western hostages and last month 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau became the second Western hostage to be executed after French commandos took part, with local troops, in a failed raid to release him.
Europe and the United States have been concerned for some time about the group’s strength in the Sahara, and it is now likely to come under closer scrutiny after Paris said in the wake of Germaneau’s killing it would wage war on the insurgents.
Below are portraits of the main players in the group — which calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — and details of the interplay and rivalry between them.
The portraits are based in part of an account from a senior former insurgent who for three years until his arrest in 2006 lived in AQIM’s desert camps and knew the main players.
The leader of AQIM since 2004. His nom de guerre is Abou Mossab Abdelouadoud. A university graduate in his late thirties, Algerian security services have nicknamed him "the chemist" because he specialises in explosives. To his followers he is known as "the true believer" for his devotion to his faith.
"The man is pious, humble and doesn’t care about money," said the former insurgent, an Algerian, who knew Droudkel.
The ex-insurgent did not want to be identified because he feared reprisals from AQIM militants. An Algerian former security official confirmed the source’s background and said his account was authentic.
"He doesn’t behave like an emir," the ex-militant said of Droudkel, using the insurgents’ term to describe their leaders. "He washes the dishes and serves meals for his soldiers."
Droudkel’s weakness is that he is based, security experts believe, in the mountainous Kabylie region in the north of Algeria. That means he is at constant risk of capture by Algerian security forces and far from the Sahara region, forcing him to relay orders to his lieutenants via intermediaries.
Droudkel issued a personal message to say his group had killed Germaneau, a move analysts say was intended to show that despite the distance, he is in control of AQIM’s activities in the Sahara desert.
Also known as Khaled Abou El Abass, he is the most high-profile of AQIM’s commanders in the Sahara and has been responsible for many of the kidnappings of Westerners. Known among fellow insurgents as "the diplomat," his alliance-building and money-making skills have been crucial to the group’s ability to build a secure base in the Sahara.
An Algerian who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Belmokhtar married a woman from the influential El Barabich tribe in the Sahara — a step which helped him build a network of support among local tribesman.
The former insurgent said Belmokhtar’s mode of operation was to use the revenue from kidnap ransoms and cigarette smuggling to buy the loyalty of tribesman and local officials.
Describing his personality, the former insurgent, who spent long periods in Belmokhtar’s camp, said he was "very calm", and "patient". In most cases he prefers to bargain for a ransom than to kill hostages, the ex-militant said.
The former insurgent said Belmokhtar wanted to demonstrate loyalty to Droudkel and the AQIM hierarchy and dispel talk within the organisation that he was too independent.
Belmokhtar was involved in negotiations over two Canadian hostages, a diplomat working for the United Nations and his aide, who were freed last year.
When Belmokhtar heard rumours that Droudkel was angry at him for stepping out of line, he insisted that Oussama El Merdaci — a close Droudkel associate who was being held by authorities in Mali — be included on the list of prisoners to be released in exchange for the Canadians’ freedom, the source said.
"He wanted to be nice with Droudkel," said the former insurgent. Malian officials have not confirmed that El Merdaci was released from jail.
Also known as Yahia Abu Amar, this 43-year-old has a low profile but according to the group’s hierarchy is in overall charge of its operations in the Sahara.
Djouadi served under Amari Saifi, also known as Abderazak El Para because he was a former Algerian paratrooper. El Para was the man behind the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003. When his boss was later arrested, Djouadi took over as AQIM’s chief of the Sahara zone.
The former insurgent said that in contrast to the pragmatic Belmokhtar, Djouadi is a doctrinaire ideologue.
"No negotiations, no dialogue and no peace," was the mantra that Djouadi would repeat to his subordinates, according to the former insurgent.
"In principle, he is against negotiations with Westerners over hostages. In this he doesn’t share Belmokhtar’s approach."
"He believes that he should be AQIM’s boss in the Sahara and not Belmokhtar, which creates tensions between the militants," said the former AQIM member.
One of AQIM’s most radical leaders who is widely believed to have been responsible for the execution of two foreign hostages: Briton Edwin Dyer in 2009 and Frenchman Michel Germaneau in July 2010.
The former insurgent described Abou Zeid, who is in his 40s, as a man who is barely literate, bad-tempered and violent. He said the AQIM commander has frequent disputes with Belmokhtar, whom he views as "too soft".
"He is very jealous of Belmokhtar with whom he has bad relations," said the source. But he said that Abou Zeid was respectful of Djouadi’s authority over AQIM in the Sahara.
"He obeys Djouadi and doesn’t make any comment when instructions are given," said the former insurgent.
OUSSAMA EL MERDACI
Second in command to Abou Zeid, he is also rated highly by AQIM’s overall leader Droudkel. Another veteran of fighting in Afghanistan, El Merdaci was arrested by Malian security forces in 2008. The former insurgent said he was among AQIM members released in a prisoner swap the following year.
Like his boss Abou Zeid, El Merdaci is not on good terms with Belmokhtar, said the former insurgent.
"The man is close to ... Droudkel, and is expected to play bigger roles in future," the former Algerian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of El Merdaci.
"If something bad was to happen to Abou Zeid, Merdaci would replace him," said the ex-official.
THE ALGERIAN CONNECTION
AQIM emerged from an organisation called the Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which was fighting an insurgency against Algerian security forces. The change of name was intended, among other things, to give the group a more regional dimension and attract recruits from neighbouring countries.
There have been some outsiders in the organisation, but the leadership has remained exclusively Algerian.
"There is a consensus inside the group that leadership must always be Algerian. They do not trust foreigners and refuse to share the money with them," said the former insurgent.