The new face of al-Qaeda
The death of Osama bin Laden left al-Qaeda without a figurehead, but Mokhtar Belmokhtar may have emerged as the man most likely to fill the void.
WHEN Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, al-Qaeda lost not only an ideologue well-versed in Islamic philosophy, but also a figurehead and heroic figure who could unite the foot-soldiers of extremist Islam.
With the kidnapping and murder of more than 30 Western hostages at a gas facility in the Algerian town of In Amenas earlier this month, the man who ordered the attack – a one-eyed Algerian terrorist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar – may have emerged as the man most likely to fill that void.
A shadowy figure, Belmokhtar has been gathering supporters and prestige in the Sahara for almost two decades. In doing so he has pursued a well-worn al-Qaeda strategy that relies first on the notoriety earned through involvement in a series of violent attacks, and then on the mystery ensured by rarely appearing in public.
During that period he has earned sobriquets as varied as "'The Prince", "The Uncatchable", "Le Phantom", and even "Mr Marlboro". He is, according to Dr Jeremy Keenan, a leading Sahara expert at London's School of African and Oriental Studies, a major player in the Sahara's political scene, while already having become part of its mythology.
"There are plenty of people in the Sahara who even question whether he is alive, or even whether he ever existed – which is not surprising since his death has been reported in the Algerian media on at least six occasions!"
Belmokhtar was born a day's walk from Ghardaia, an oasis town in the northern reaches of the Algerian Sahara, in 1972. Just about every other detail about his life is disputed. For a start, Belmokhtar would later boast on jihadist forums that he travelled to Afghanistan as a 17-year-old in 1989 to fight with the mujahideen against the Russians. It was, however, almost certainly two years later that he made the journey to attend al-Qaeda training camps in Khalden and Jalalabad.
In one version of Belmokhtar's past, he claims that he was radicalised by the killing of Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian-Pakistani scholar and one of the mentors of Osama bin Laden. Others who have met Belmokhtar suggest otherwise, that his visceral hatred of the Algerian state was motivated by a desire to avenge the death of his brother, killed in a shootout with a customs patrol.
His supporters like to claim that he lost his eye in battle fighting for Islam. More likely, it happened while the young Belmokhtar was mishandling explosives. Either way, just as Osama bin Laden's bullet scars and Taliban leader Mullah Omar's loss of an eye became essential parts of their legend, Belmokhtar's injury has become a battlefield badge of honour and very much a part of, and sometimes even a substitute for, his public persona.
Wherever the truth lies in all of these contested stories, Belmokhtar almost certainly returned to Algeria in 1993. The country was on the brink of catastrophe.
A landslide election victory by Islamist parties in December 1991 had been promptly annulled by Algeria's dysfunctional pro-Western government. A brutal civil war ensued, and a freshly trained and newly militant Belmokhtar slipped easily into the ranks of the feared Armed Islamic Group (GIA) whose stated mission was to overthrow the Algerian government and establish an Islamic state.
The GIA massacred entire villages, and Belmokhtar's ferocity and zeal won him the admiration of his commanders. He rose quickly through the organisation's ranks.
By the late 1990s, with the war largely over, Belmokhtar seized control over lucrative trans-Saharan smuggling routes, reportedly earning millions for trafficking cigarettes – hence the "Mr Marlboro" tag – weapons and drugs across the barely patrolled frontiers of the Sahara and Sahel.
But Belmokhtar also made a series of strategic steps that would transform him into one of the leading figures of extremist North African politics.
In 2002, he is reported to have hosted an emissary of Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda's leadership sought to establish a post-9/11 foothold far from the under-siege Afghanistan and Somalia. Whether or not such meetings ever took place, their mere possibility marked out Belmokhtar as a significant player in militant circles.
A year later, Belmokhtar engineered the spectacular kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara. Their release months later in Mali came only after the alleged payment of a €5 million ransom by the German government. In the same year, the United Nations formally added his name to the list of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.
In his private life, Belmokhtar understood the need to build alliances beyond the political sphere: his four wives come from some of the leading Arab and Tuareg families in northern Mali. And he understood the defining power of symbolism – he named his eldest son Osama.
By the age of just 31, Belmokhtar had become one of the most powerful men in the Sahara. He was also soon to become the Sahara's most wanted man.
Aside from the 2002 kidnapping, Belmokhtar was sentenced in absentia by an Algerian court to life imprisonment in 2004 for forming terrorist groups, robbery, detention, and the use of illegal weapons. Such was his fame already that his reported presence in Algeria was sufficient to cause the cancellation of the 2004 Paris-Dakar Rally.
Three years later, he was given another sentence, this time 20 years, again in absentia, for kidnapping, weapons trafficking and more terrorist-related crimes. A death penalty followed in 2008 for the murder of 13 customs officers who dared to challenge his smuggling empire, with a further death penalty in 2012 for terrorism.
In the midst of all this infamy, Algerian extremist groups came together to form Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2006. Not surprisingly, Belmokhtar was welcomed into the fold, his reputation as a battle-hardened fighter, leader of men and wealthy benefactor for Islamist causes preceding him.
He was placed in charge of his own brigade and soon excelled in the hostage-taking that has made AQIM the wealthiest of all al-Qaeda groups – by some estimates, AQIM has earned $65 million from hostage-taking alone since 2008.
It was during his time as a senior AQIM commander that he oversaw the 2008 kidnapping in Niger of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay. The two men were released after almost four months, and they remain among very few Westerners to have personal experience of Belmokhtar.
"He was very businesslike," Fowler said recently. "Professional" is another word Fowler used to describe him. Where other figures among Fowler's captors "would give you great proselytising speeches, pumping vitriol against all things Western, Belmokhtar simply dealt with the issue of the moment and that was it".
"The French press call him 'The Untouchable'," Fowler said. "And a lot of people have been trying to lay their hands on him for a long time. Clearly he's a survivor. He's a wily guy."
In another interview with the New York Times, Fowler went further: "He's a fairly slight, very serious, very confident-looking guy who moves with quiet authority. He's clearly been in the business of being a terrorist and surviving for a long time. I was always impressed by the quiet authority he exhibited."
But not everyone was impressed by Belmokhtar's growing authority. For almost a decade, Belmokhtar shared an uneasy partnership with the nominal leader or emir of AQIM, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel). As Belmokhtar's international reputation grew, so too did Wadoud's suspicions of his deputy's designs on the top job.
In late 2012, Wadoud announced that Belmokhtar had been relieved of his duties. No reason was given. Nor can it be confirmed whether Belmokhtar jumped or was pushed. Either way, Belmokhtar quickly took advantage of loose membership structures within AQIM to form a new organisation known variously as the Masked Brigade or Those Who Sign With Blood Brigade.
There is little doubt that the immediate trigger for the In Amenas attack was the French assault on Islamist positions in Mali. Speaking with the Mauritanian news agency from his Malian stronghold of Gao, Belmokhtar confirmed that he planned to uphold "the clearly expressed choice" of the people of northern Mali "to apply Islamic sharia law".
He also warned that any country attacking Mali's north "would be considered as an oppressor and aggressor who is attacking a Muslim people". And he pointed out that Algeria had declared war on the Islamists by allowing French planes to use Algerian airspace.
But the attack was also Belmokhtar's statement of intent, a bid to place his new organisation clearly on the militant map and to remind potential recruits across North Africa that Belmokhtar himself remained a force to be reckoned with despite his departure from AQIM.
The In Amenas attack had less to do with events in Mali, leading Sahara expert Wolfram Lacher told Britain's Channel Four last week, and "more to do with Belmokhtar setting up his own group and needing seed capital".
There is a third possible explanation – that Belmokhtar has designs on, at the very least, a senior leadership position within the wider al-Qaeda hierarchy. He may even wish to become the organisation's new figurehead.
Like bin Laden in Afghanistan, Belmokhtar operates within a vast realm largely devoid of central government authority. As his public exposure has grown, he has demonstrated a learned awareness of the need for fiery rhetoric: he has warned that the Sahara and Sahel are threatened by "the Crusader Western nations, especially France" and that these enemies would be fought "in their homes", and "experience the heat of wounds" in their own countries.
He also understands that a mass killing of Westerners guarantees him the headlines needed to secure credibility within extremist ranks. And he calculated correctly that the West's response – British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that Belmokhtar and his men posed a "large and existential threat" to the West – would propel him overnight from being a significant but largely limited regional player to earning the infamy that saw him labelled the world's most wanted man.
With the French soldiers rapidly regaining territory in Mali and Algeria and eager to exact revenge for Belmokhtar's strike at the heart of its oil-and-gas economy, Belmokhtar is clearly playing a dangerous game.
French, British and American forces have reportedly deployed in an attempt to track him down. If they succeed, if indeed he has over-reached, he could find himself as little more than a footnote to history.
And yet, for all the sophistication of Western military hardware and firepower, the Sahara is a vast place and Belmokhtar knows it far better than his pursuers. Just as Osama bin Laden did in Afghanistan, Belmokhtar may believe that he can disappear into the desert and allow his elusiveness to become a part of his myth, regardless of whether he carries out further attacks. If that does happen, it would be a role for which Belmokhtar has spent a lifetime preparing.
Anthony Ham is a Melbourne journalist who has written extensively about North African politics.