Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury hotel in Mali in late November, shot to global notoriety when his militants carried out an assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago. Long known as “The Uncatchable,” international militaries have tried to catch him on numerous occasions. Despite several reports of his death, it is evident that Belmokhtar remains alive and continues to have the capabilities of carrying out deadly attacks across the Sahelian region.
In mid-November 2015, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian revealed that United States bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country’s desert hinterland. Washington has pledged a reward of US $5 million on his head. Of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region that straddles the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar’s photo that features on the wall of the French army commander’s office in Gao, which is located in northern Mali. Colonel Luc Laine has stated that “it reminds me that he exist and wants to do me harm.”
A source within the Malian intelligence services has disclosed that “Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists.” He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south region of Algeria, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed. In May of this year, he reaffirmed that his group, al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to al-Qaeda, effectively denying allegiance, which was paid to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group by another of the movement’s leaders.
Born in 1972, in the ancient desert city of Ghardai, which is located 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, Belmokhtar stated in a rare 2007 interview that he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen who were combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. He had joined the in 1991, when he was barely 19 years old. He claims that it was in Afghanistan that he lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel. He also states that it was there that he made his first contacts with al-Qaeda. He later joined al-Qaeda’s ranks and would eventually rise to a senior position.
Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, just a year after the government sparked a civil war by cancelling an election, which the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win. At this point, he joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent camping of civilian massacres in its battle against the government. During the violence, the group would sometimes wipe out entire villages. His knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger effectively enabled him to thrive in the region.
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, who had now gained the nickname “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, opted to go with them. Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – effectively becoming al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch. Since then, AQIM has managed to create a tight network across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone. They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have been able to finance their operations through the making of millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages.
In 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion opened the way for a jihadist takeover of northern Mali, officials reported that Belmoktar purchases weapons in Libya, adding that he was twice seen at the side of Iyad Ghaly, the Tuareg head of Ansar Dine jihadists, in Gao and Timbuktu. There have been conflicting reports about his departure from al-Qaeda, with some reports stating that he was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in northern Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings.” Other reports have suggested that he separated from AQIM in a bid to form another terror group that would further its spread in Africa. In January 2013, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood,” and led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algiers gas field assault. The attack occurred just a few days after France launched a military operation aimed at helping Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.
In May 2013, just two months after he was reportedly killed by Chadian troops in Mali, he claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against Nigeria’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger. Al-Murabitoun was formed months later, in August, when his “Signatories in Blood” group joined forces with another regional jihadist group, MUJAO. In March, the group claimed its first deadly attack against westerners in Bamako. Five people were killed in that attack.
Just days after the 20 November attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility, stating “this blessed operation comes as a response to the assaults of the Crusaders on our people, our sanctities, and our mujahideen brothers in Mali.”
In its annual report, which was published on 15 December, media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) disclosed that while fewer journalists were imprisoned this year, the number held hostage increased, noting that China and Egypt were named the worst nations for jailing media workers.
According to the RSF, the number of journalists put in prison fell fourteen percent in 2015 from last year. Furthermore, fifty-four professional journalists were held hostage in 2015, an increase of 35 percent from the last year. The reports points to Syria as the country with the highest number of reporters in the hands of extremist or criminal groups at 26. The report also indicates that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group alone holds eighteen journalists, largely in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
The report also described China as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” followed by Egypt, adding that Iran and Eritrea were also condemned for jailing members of the press.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire noted that “a full-blown hostage industry has developed in certain conflict zones.” He highlighted Yemen as being the newest problem country for reporters, with thirty-three journalists kidnapped by Houthi militias and al-Qaeda militants in 2015, compared with just two in the previous year. According to Deloire, “we are very alarmed by the increase in the number of reporters held hostage in 2015. The phenomenon is above all linked to the big surge in abductions of journalists in Yemen.”
Meanwhile lawless Libya had the largest number of journalists reported missing this year. With eight members of the press unaccounted for, the RSF noted that the political climate “makes it harder to conduct investigations to locate missing journalists.”
A United States military spokesman reported on 10 December that the finance chief of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has been killed in air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition.
According to the spokesman, Muwaffaq Mustafa Mohammed al-Karmoush, also known as Abu Salah, along with two other senior leaders, were killed in the air strikes, which occurred in “recent weeks.” No further details pertaining to the strikes have been released. US military spokesman Col. Steve Warren has also confirmed the deaths.
Abu Salah is the code name for Muwaffaq Mustafa Mohammed al-Karmoush. He appears on the US Treasury’s Counter Terrorism Designations list setting out sanctioned individuals. It lists him as an Iraqi national who was born in 1973. Col. Warren called Abu Salah “one of the most senior and experienced members” of the militant group’s financial network, adding that “killing him and his predecessors exhausts the knowledge and talent needed to co-ordinate funding within the organizations.” He further disclosed that the other leaders killed in the air strikes were Abu Mariam, a senior chief responsible for extortion activities, and Abu Waqman al-Tunis, who co-ordinated the transfer of people, weapons and information. Brett McGurk, special US presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, has reported that the three were killed “as part of the coalition campaign to destroy ISIL’s (Islamic State’s) financial infrastructure.”
The coalition has been carrying out air strikes against IS militants both in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq for over a year. One of these airstrikes recently killed an IS leader in Libya. On Monday, 7 December, the Pentagon confirmed that a US air strike killed Abu Nabil, adding that he died after an F-15 jet targeted a compound in the eastern city of Derna on 13 November.
Since the attacks in Paris on November 13, Belgium has come under extensive international scrutiny. On November 26, the Belgian Government reduced the threat level in Brussels from 4 (the highest level) to 3. That concluded a five day period during which Brussels came to a virtual standstill. From November 21 to 25, the city was placed on a level 4 terrorism alert with public buildings, schools and public transit systems closed. In addition, the Belgian Government warned people not to gather in public or participate in demonstrations. On November 23, NATO and European Union facilities opened for the week with increased security and only essential personnel working. The headquarters of Belgium’s largest bank, KBC Groep NV, remained closed at the start of the business week.
In a highly unusual decision, the Belgian Government deployed hundreds of members of the Belgian Armed Forces onto the streets of Brussels. Hundreds of Belgian police officers searched for Salah Abdeslam (one of the Paris attackers) and other ISIS operatives. As of November 27, Abdeslam has not been captured and the public has been warned to remain vigilant. Even when the transit system was reopened on November 26, over 200 police officers were deployed at throughout the system. Belgium had previously conducted large counter-terrorism operations in January, but the November Brussels lockdown was far bigger in scale.
The intensity of the Belgian police operations over the past week has been unprecedented. On November 21-22 alone, police conducted at least 20 raids in Brussels and surrounding suburbs. Of the 16 people detained, 15 were ultimately released. The one individual kept in custody was charged on November 23 for his involvement with the Paris attacks and ISIS. Dozens of more police raids followed on November 21, with 21 people being detained with 17 being released. Two of the men arrested in the second round of raids were linked directly to the November 13 Paris Attacks. Hamza Attou and Mohammed Amri admitted they drove Salah Abdeslam from Paris back to Brussels on the evening of November 13. However, they denied any direct involvement with the attacks. Two other men, an unidentified French national and Moroccan national, were arrested in the Molenbeek neighbourhood. According to police, the Moroccan man’s vehicle contained two handguns.
Senior Belgium Ministers have said the increased alert level was due to specific intelligence about possible attacks in the Brussels area. Belgium’s Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said there were particular fears of an imminent attack on November 22. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has also stated that Belgian police are searching for “maybe 10 or more people in Belgium, maybe in neighbouring countries, present in the territory to organise some terrorist attacks.” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has assured his country that there were no longer imminent fears of a terrorist attack. However, he has warned Belgians that the threat of an attack, particularly in Brussels, is still a serious concern. Though the largest lockdown in modern Belgian history may have ended, anxiety continues to linger about Salah Abdeslam and ISIS.
Over this past year, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has dramatically expanded its theatre of operations, moving from its hub in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, to either executing or inspiring a series of attacks across three continents that have already claimed more than 800 lives this year.
The mayhem that has been created by those attacks, which include the downing of a Russian airline and gun and suicide bombings in Paris France, has attracted a lot of attention. Furthermore, the scope of the recent attacks, coupled with the number of those killed and wounded, has demonstrated a level of sophistication and determination. The attacks have also revealed the extents to which the group is willing to go in a bid to surpass al-Qaeda and to prove itself the most dominant jihadi movement on the planet. Furthermore, last week’s announcement by IS that it had killed Norwegian and Chinese capital reflects its intention to continue to kidnap and kill hostages inside its self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq while at the same time pursuing mass casualty attacks abroad.
Over the past year, thousands of people have been killed by IS militants both in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq in mass executions, bombings and other attacks.
Timeline of attacks outside of Syria and Iraq this year:
- 13 November – At least 129 people are killed in Paris with over 350 wounded, most at a concert hall, but some at trendy restaurants and several near a national Stadium. IS claims the attack, which is the worst in the history of Paris, calling it retaliation for France’s ongoing role in US-led airstrikes that have targeted IS operations in both Syria and Iraq.
- 12 November – Powerful twin suicide bombings targeted a crowded Shi’ite neighbourhood in Beirut. At least 43 people are killed and more than 200 are wounded. IS claims responsibility for the attack.
- 31 October – A bomb downs a Russian airliner just 23 minutes after it takes off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The plane was en route to St Petersburg, Russia. The plane crashes in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, which is home to a potent IS affiliate. All 224 people on board, most of them Russian tourists, are killed. IS claims the attack.
- 10 October – Two suicide bombings kill at least 100 people at a peaceful rally in Ankara, Turkey. While the attack has not been claimed by IS, Turkish prosecutors investigating the attack have disclosed that it was carried out by a local IS cell.
- 6 October – Suicide car bombing targeted exiled Yemeni officials and the Saudi and Emirati troops baking their efforts to retake the country kill at least fifteen people in the port city of Aden. A new IS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials had earlier blamed on Yemen’s Shi’ite rebels.
- 6 August – A suicide bomber attacks a mosque inside a police compound in western Saudi Arabia. Fifteen people are killed in what is the deadliest attack on the kingdom’s security forces in years. Eleven of the dead belonged to an elite counterterrorism unit whose tasks include protecting the hajj pilgrimage. The attack was later claimed by IS.
- 26 June – A gunman killed 38 tourists, mostly Britons, in the coastal resort of Sousse, Tunisia.
- A bomb rips through one of Kuwait’s oldest Shi’ite mosques during Friday prayers, killing 27 people. This is the first major militant attack to take place in Kuwait in more than two decades. The attack is claimed by IS.
- In a third attack that same day, a truck driver once known for radical Islamic ties crashes into a US-owned chemical warehouse in southern France and hangs his employer’s severed head on a factory gat, along with banners with Arabic inscriptions.
- 29 May – A suicide bomber disguised as a woman blows himself up in the parking lot of a Shi’ite mosque in the Saudi Arabian port city of Damman, killing four people. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack
- 22 May – A suicide bomber strikes a Shi’ite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia as worshippers commemorate the birth of a revered saint. Twenty-one people are killed in the attack and dozens are left injured. The attack occurred in the eastern Qatif region, which is the heartland of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite Muslim minority. The attack, which was claimed by IS, was the deadliest militant assault in the kingdom in more then a decade.
- 18 April – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blames IS for a suicide bombing in the country that killed at least 35 people and wounded 125 others.
- 20 March – An emerging IS affiliate in Yemen claims responsibility for a series of suicide bombings that kill 137 people and wound 345.
- 18 March – Extremist gunmen open fire on foreign tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, killing 22 people in the country’s worst attack on civilians in thirteen years. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack.