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Belmokhtar: the assumed mastermind behind the Algeria hostage crisis

Mokhtar Belmokhtar lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan, swears allegiance to Al Qaeda and named his son after Osama bin Laden.

Militia leader Moktar Belmoktar, whose group has claimed responsibility for capturing dozens of foreigners and Algerians in a surprise attack yesterday.
Militia leader Moktar Belmoktar, whose group has claimed responsibility for capturing dozens of foreigners and Algerians in a surprise attack yesterday.

LONDON // 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 Policy.

A statement from Belmokhtar's Mulathameen group claiming responsibility for Wednesday's hostage-taking demanded that France stop its military operations in Mali.

It also cited the battle being waged by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents against the 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 were 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, Mr 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 military interests".

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) - 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.

Mr Belmokhtar has been the object of persistent speculation that he may have split from AQIM because of 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 Mr Lebovich said talk of deadly rivalries between the two appeared to be overblown.

Whatever the operational links between Mr 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 Mr Belmokhtar's group more seriously as an Al Qaeda-type organisation rather than a criminal syndicate.

Anis Rahamani, editor of the Algerian daily Ennahar, said Mr 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."

* Reuters