(Reuters) - Islamist militants attacked a gas field in Algeria on Wednesday, claiming to have kidnapped up to 41 foreigners including seven Americans in a dawn raid in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali, according to regional media reports.
A Mauritanian news agency, ANI, said the raiders were commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Saharan jihadist and smuggling kingpin. Here are some facts about Belmokhtar:
— Linked to a string of kidnappings of foreigners in North Africa in the last decade, Algerian-born Belmokhtar has earned a reputation as one of the most daring and elusive Islamic jihadist leaders operating in one of the remotest corners of the globe - the vast Sahara desert.
“He’s one of the best known warlords of the Sahara,” said Stephen Ellis, an expert on organized crime and professor at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. He said Belmokhtar had also gained notoriety as a Saharan smuggler, especially of cigarettes.
French intelligence dubbed Belmokhtar “the uncatchable” in 2002.
— Born in Ghardaia, Algeria, in 1972, Belmokhtar started his jihadist activities early, according to his own account in an interview posted on jihadi forums in 2007. He said he traveled at the age of 19 to Afghanistan where he claimed he gained training and combat experience before returning to his homeland Algeria in 1992.
This launched him on a two-decade career of Islamic militancy, first as a member of Algeria’s Islamic Armed Group (GIA) in the country’s civil war, then as a joint founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which started extending its attacks against security forces into countries of the arid Sahel, which forms the southern fringe of the Sahara.
— The GSPC later took up the franchise of al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, under the name al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar headed one of two AQIM battalions in Algeria’s southern desert bordering Mali.
In his role as a militant Saharan jihadist leader, Belmokhtar has been linked to the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists, the 2008 negotiations for the release of two Austrian captives, and 2009 negotiations for the release of two Canadian hostages. Hostage-taking and smuggling, of everything from cigarettes to guns, people and drugs, form part of a multi-million dollar criminal economy in the Sahara.
Belmokhtar was sentenced by an Algerian court to life imprisonment in absentia in connection with the killing of 10 Algerian customs agents in 2007.
— He has also carved out a reputation as one of the most important “gangster-jihadists” of the Sahara: besides his involvement in kidnappings, he has gained prominence as a supplier of arms to Islamist groups, and as a trafficker of cigarettes, part of a mosaic of criminal activities.
The latter gained him the nickname “Mister Malboro” among the local population in the Sahara, according to French media.
Ellis said U.S. military officials had described Belmokhtar as “a logistician” and “fixer” in the Saharan region.
— His activities gained him strong links with local Tuareg communities, including the ones in northern Mali whose fighters played a major role in the Tuareg-led rebel offensive last year that seized the north of the West African state following a military coup in the southern capital Bamako. He is reported to have married local Arab and Tuareg women, cementing his ties.
An Algerian TV channel reported Belmokhtar had been killed in northern Mali in June in clashes between Islamic militants and Tuareg-led separatists, but an associate denied the report.
In December, the same associate said Belmokhtar had left AQIM to create his own group operating across the Sahara, but it remained under the orders of central al Qaeda. The move followed an apparent fallout with other militant leaders.
(Sources: U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, U.N. al Qaeda Sanctions Committee, Reuters)
Reporting by David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood