London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Mokhtar Belmokhtar has become internationally notorious following this week’s siege on Algeria’s In Amenas gas processing plant. As the siege entered its fourth day, the standoff between the Algerian army and Al Qaeda linked gunmen remains ongoing with the fate of an unknown number of hostages hanging in the balance. Whatever happens in the coming hours and days, there can be no doubt that this represents one of the biggest international hostage crises in recent decades and will signal the beginning of a huge international manhunt for its reported mastermind; Belmokhtar.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar was born in the eastern Algerian desert city of Ghardana, 350 miles south of the capital Algiers. According to interviews posted on Islamist websites, Belmokhtar was attracted to waging jihad as a schoolboy. At age 19, he traveled to Afghanistan and reportedly received training from Al Qaeda. He was prompted to join the Afghan jihad following the 1989 killing in Pakistan of Palestinian Islamist ideologue and father of global jihad Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. Azzam had also been a mentor to Osama Bin Laden.
According to a Jamestown Foundation report, which dubs him the Algerian Jihad’s Southern Amir, Belmokhtar claims to have made contact with jihadists from around the world, including luminaries such as Abu Qatada, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Talal al-Masri.
Belmokhtar also claims to have fought in battlefronts from Qardiz to Jalabad to Kabul. On his return to Algeria in 1993, Belmokhtar found his homeland in the throes of political turmoil following the Algerian military’s annulment of elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has been poised to win. Belmokhtar played an active role in the conflict that followed and which ultimately claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, becoming a key figure in the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) and later the breakaway Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Belmokhtar is known by a number of names, including Laaouar, or the One-Eyed, after he lost an eye to shrapnel, although it is has not been confirmed whether this was in Afghanistan or Algeria. The Algerian jihadist is also known as Mr. Marlboro for the cigarette-smuggling monopoly he oversaw across the Sahel region to finance his jihad. Whilst French intelligence officials reportedly call him the Uncatchable for his shadowy role in a series of kidnappings in 2003, an undertaking that is believed to have earned him millions of dollars in ransom.
During this period, Belmokhtar and those under his command- known as the Mulathameen Brigade (The Masked Ones)-became a dependable supplier of weapons and materials to GSPC elements in northern Algeria, whilst simultaneously carrying out periodic attacks against the Algerian security services. The Jamestown Foundation asserted that Belmokhtar and his supporters had significant influence on the Sahara and Sahel regions. The report also describes a turning point for Belmokhtar and his role in the Algerian jihad, namely the replacement in 2003 of Hassan Hattab as the leader of the GSPC. Following this, Belmokhtar reportedly turned his attention towards consolidating his powerbase in the southern regions and strengthening his connections with local networks. Belmokhtar is also known to have strong links with Tuareg rebels in the south Sahara from Mali to Niger to Mauritania.
In addition to this, Belmokhtar served as a key conduit between Al Qaeda and the Algerian jihadists. In a 2005 interview, Belmokhtar himself claims to have initiated contact with Al Qaeda when the nascent terrorist organization was based in Sudan in the early 1990s.
In 2009, GSPC merged with Al Qaeda, renaming itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar was appointed to head an AQIM battalion in the desert between Algeria and Mali.
However AQIM soon stripped Belmokhtar of his title of emir of the Sahel, reportedly following disputes over his return to smuggling and trafficking.
Following this, Belmokhtar launched a new group last year, known variously as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion and the Mulathameen Brigade. This group is reportedly allied with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another Islamist group that has broken off from Al Qaeda.
The attack on the In Amenas gas processing plant is the group’s first big operation and demonstrates that Belmokhtar remains influential despite his marginalization within AQIM.
As for what the future holds, Belmokhtar and his group have thrown down the gauntlet, forcefully announcing their presence on the scene.
Belmokhtar has become internationally notorious in the wake of this operation, particularly as his movement now poses a strategic threat to European energy supplies. There is a reported $100,000 bounty on Belmokhtar’s head, however this is expected to be put up to $1 million following recent events. Whilst David Cameron held talks with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Downing Street on Friday to coordinate intelligence efforts to locate the Algerian jihadist.
The Jamestown Foundation report on the Algerian Jihad’s Southern Amir published in 2009 ends by emphasizing that as his Tuareg tribal connections appear to remain warm and he reportedly maintains allies in the Malian government, Belmokhtar appears to have successfully woven himself into the fabric of the region. As for whether this will be sufficient to hide him from the international manhunt that has been launched in the wake of this attack, only time will tell.