The article below was written in October 2012 and publicized on Jeune Afrique. A lot has happened since then and Belmokhtar’s katiba was responsible for the deadly hostage taking in southern Algeria this month. I’ve decided to post this anyway to give a little more background information on Belmokhtar. Little disclaimer: French nor English are my native languages, so it is possible there are errors in the translation.
Translated from French by TdH, original source: 03/10/2012 at 11:05 By L. Touchard, B. Ahmed, Ch Ouazani / Jeuneafrique.com (http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Articles/Dossier/JA2698p024-033.xml4/algerie-mali-terrorisme-afghanistanaqmi-mokhtar-belmokhtar-le-trafiquant.html)
Belmokhtar Mokhtar, Algeria, 40, is the leader of one of the two main katibas in Mali.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or “The history of Hajj that went wrong”. As a teen, young Mokhtar left his native Algeria in 1990 to go to Saudi Arabia, where he performed the minor pilgrimage. He was only 18 years old at that time. Fascinated by the struggles of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupation, he decided to also conduct jihad. Accompanied by three friends, he flew to Afghanistan a year later.
There, he joined the fundamentalist Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Belmokhtar built his legend. If the fanatic youngster had met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who became the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq) is impossible to verify. It is being said that he lost his eye in a battle against the Soviets but the latest Russian tanks left the mountains of Afghanistan in February 1989, so it is more likely an injury he suffered during training. Anyway, Belmokhtar dreamed to return home. Hezb-e-Islami had enlisted many foreign fighters and enjoyed strong support in Pakistan. Algeria called on Islamabad to intervene as was done in April 1993, when the Pakistani police stopped and expelled hundreds of people. But the young jihadist was gone already.
Back home in late 1992, Mokhtar enjoyed relative autonomy and puts up a katiba he named: Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which quickly scattered beyond Algerian borders into the Sahara. In 1998, he joined the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). It was during these years that “One Eye” wins his other nickname, Mister Marlboro, with reference to the business in the trafficking of cigarettes, arms, 4×4 vehicles, drugs, diamonds and migrant he had set up. It is difficult to determine who gets the credit for this nickname, intelligence services or natives he works with. Anyway, the trafficking paid of well and allowed him to travel throughout the region, build a war chest and forge ties with people – including traditional leaders and some members of the security forces – that live along these caravan routes.
But the businessman had not only supporters within the GSPC, especially after the fall of Hassan Hattab, in August 2003. It aroused jealousy – rivalries with Abderrazak El Para are at their peak – and caused controversy on its commitment to religious values. His ritual was to root and hide in the Malian desert, moving constantly with his katiba, avoiding confrontations with the army, to marry girls of local leaders and distribute the money to buy the silence of some and the complicity of others. Thus he made a sanctuary in northern Mali where he can easily protect his convoys, and where he is free from the tutelage of Droukdel. He can also be a “intractable boss.” It is probably his katiba which is responsible for the kidnapping and execution of 11 Mauritanian soldiers in September 2008. “We believe this is an error and instructions were given by my brother, Emir Abu Musab Abdelwadoud [Emir Droukdel, Ed], never to repeat such acts,” he said in January 2012.
At the same time, the outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion forced him to take a stand. In March 2012, he had spend three weeks in Libya, one reason was to buy arms. In April and May 2012, he met at least twice with the leaders of Ansar Dine and the Movement uniqueness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Timbuktu. He already knew Iyad Ag Ghali (the leader of Ansar Dine) who is likely to have rubbed in negotiations for the release of hostages. Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou (leader of MUJAO) is a former comrade in AQIM. All of them have assigned roles and areas of influence in northern Mali.
A desert fox, Mokhtar Belmokhtar is essential, but ignored. The sincerity of his commitment as a jihadist is questionable, some experts believe that this is the case. It is not sure if Algeria – where he was sentenced to death in absentia – and Mauritania are of this opinion. The other option would be to disconnected from AQIM, against serious guarantees or to be neutralized once the crisis is resolved …