BOSTON — Mokhtar Belmokhtar — the alleged mastermind of the hostage seizure at the In Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria — has long been a formidable and elusive foe.
He is a "one-eyed war veteran with the nickname 'Mr. Marlboro,'" who finances his holy war with cigarette smuggling and hostage taking, the BBC reports. "He acquired the nickname because of his role in cigarette-smuggling across the Sahel region to finance his jihad, now waged under the banner of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion."
Belmokhtar was attracted to jihad by the time he was a secondary school student.
According to the BBC:
Inspired to avenge the 1989 killing of Palestinian Islamist ideologue Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, [Belmokhtar] travelled to Afghanistan as a 19 year old to receive training from al-Qaeda.
"Moreover, Belmokhtar claims to have been to battlefronts 'from Qardiz to Jalalabad to Kabul.'"
Belmokhtar, who kidnapped UN Niger envoy Robert Fowler in December 2008, has operated freely in the region due to a vast local network of supporters, according to an analysis by the Jamestown Foundation:
Dubbed the “Uncatchable” by French intelligence in 2002, Belmokhtar has operated as a critical facilitator and amir of the Sahara and Sahel regions for Algerian groups including the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA), the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
With [twenty-one] years of involvement in jihadism, Belmokhtar has continually eluded government efforts to marginalize him, while becoming a gravitational force in the North African arena and at times a key node in al-Qaeda’s international network.
Belmokhtar claims to be a key link between Algerian extremists and Al Qaeda, Jamestown Foundation adds:
After returning from Afghanistan in 1993, Belmokhtar became a key channel for communications between core al-Qaeda and the Algerian jihadi groups. According to his 2005 interview, Belmokhtar claimed to have initiated correspondence with al-Qaeda while the latter was residing in Sudan in the early 1990s.
Belmokhtar goes so far as to say that he was tasked with reaching out to al-Qaeda to generate financial and training support for the burgeoning Algerian jihad in late 1994. While al-Qaeda was known to have provided support to other North African groups during this time, it is unclear to what degree al-Qaeda actually supported Belmokhtar.
More recently, experts have speculated that Belmokhtar's status within the Islamist hierarchy had fallen. The Guardian reports:
Passed over for several senior positions within the organisation in recent years, in October it was announced he had been relieved of his command of fighters in northern Mali by AQMI's leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, who appointed Yahya Abou El Hamame as "emir of the Sahel".
Then reports in both Malian and other media suggested that Belmokhtar had been removed from command of his unit, known as the Turbaned Ones, after being deemed to be a loose cannon, later forming his own splinter group known as Those Who Sign in Blood.
By December, the Associated Press was reporting in an interview with Oumar Ould Hamaha – a figure who has held positions in AQIM, Ansar al Din, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO) – that Belmokhtar was no longer under AQIM's direct command but still a follower of al-Qaida.
The Islamist fighter's fate was not immediately known after an Algerian raid on Thursday that reportedly led to the death of 35 hostages and 15 militants. But if he is reported to have died in the attack, it will not the first time. Last June officials claimed that he was dead after a raid in the Malian city of Gao.
Follow journalist David Case on Twitter: Follow @DCaseGP