Belmokhtar: “The Uncatchable” JihadistJanuary 15, 2016 in Uncategorized
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.”