Mokhtar Belmokhtar: The Algerian Jihad’s Southern Amir

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 12

Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Suspected of a leading role in the kidnapping of the two Canadian and two European hostages released on April 21, 2009, the enigmatic Mokhtar Belmokhtar has yet again come to the fore as the dominant jihadi personality in the Sahara.  Dubbed the “Uncatchable” by French intelligence in 2002, Belmokhtar has operated as a critical facilitator and aqwmir 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 eighteen 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.  Falsely reported to have been killed by Algerian forces in 1999 (al-Majallah, March 14, 1999), rumored to be in amnesty negotiations for over two years, and at odds with AQIM amir Abdelmalek Droukdel, Mokhtar Belmokhtar has become detached from the Algerian jihad and is pursuing his own vision of jihad in the Sahara.  

Entrée into Jihadism
Born on June 1, 1972 in Ghardaïa, central Algeria, Belmokhtar claims to have entered into jihadism at the age of 19. [1] In an interview posted online in late 2005, Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khaled Abou al-Abbas and Lâaouar – ‘one-eyed’) – professes to have been enamored by the Afghan jihad throughout his secondary schooling.  He points to the killing of Jordanian-Palestinian jihad ideologue Abdullah Azzam in 1989 as a seminal point in his development.  Within two years of Azzam’s death, Belmokhtar traveled to Afghanistan at the age of 19 where he underwent training at Khalden, Jihad Wal, and al-Qaeda’s Jalalabad camp.  While there, Belmokhtar claims to have made connections with jihadis from around the world, including luminaries such as Abu Qatada, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Talal al-Masri. Moreover, Belmokhtar claims to have been to battlefronts “from Qardiz to Jalalabad to Kabul.” While little is known of Belmokhtar’s time in Afghanistan aside from his own account, the training and experience Belmokhtar acquired there would later serve as an essential foundation for his activities in Algeria. 

Departing Afghanistan in late 1992 and returning to Ghardaïa in 1993, Belmokhtar soon joined the ranks of the budding jihadi movement in Algeria. His return to Algeria came roughly one year after the Algerian military nullified the 1992 election victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which served as the beginning of Algeria’s bloody civil war. Soon after his return, Belmokhtar established the first cell of the Shahada Katibat [Martyrs’ Battalion] in Ghardaïa, which would later expand its operational scope to the Sahara region and become integrated into the GIA as the group’s ninth zone of operations (al-Majallah, March 14, 1999).  
As the GIA grew increasingly violent under the leadership of Jamal Zitouni and Antar Zouabri, Belmokhtar followed Hassan Hattab in forming the GSPC (Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 13, 2002). In the new organization, Belmokhtar continued in his leadership of the southern zone, with an increasing focus on the procurement of weapons and material. Throughout this period, Belmokhtar and those under his command became a dependable supplier of weapons and material to GSPC elements in the north (Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 13, 2002). Nevertheless, Belmokhtar and his al-Moulathamine (Masked) Brigade still conducted periodic attacks against the Algerian security services and even private companies, projecting sufficient force to have a significant influence on the Sahara and Sahel regions.  For example, Belmokhtar’s cadre forced the diversion of the 1999 Paris-Dakar rally to avoid the Niger stage (Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 13, 2002). In later years, Belmokhtar would turn his attention to Mauritania, where an estimated 100 to 150 militants under his command would attack Mauritania’s Lemgheity barracks, killing 15 Mauritanian soldiers and wounding another 17 (see Terrorism Focus, June 13, 2005).  

Belmokhtar Becomes Detached
A turning point for Belmokhtar and his role in the Algerian jihad would come in 2003 with the replacement of Hassan Hattab as the leader of the GSPC. From this point forward, Belmokhtar appears to have become steadily detached from the mainstream GSPC, turning his attention toward consolidating his powerbase in the southern regions and strengthening his connections with local networks. In 2003, although a senior member of the GSPC and possessing strong militant and leadership credentials, Belmokhtar was not selected to become the GSPC’s next amir. The role was filled instead by Nabil Sahraoui, who would later be killed in a shootout with Algerian security services in June 2004. Although Hassan Hattab would publicly assert his control over the GSPC, leadership of the group passed from Sahraoui to the little known and inexperienced Abdelmalek Droukdel (see Terrorism Focus, November 14, 2005).  
According to Abdelkader Benmessaoud, the former leader of AQIM’s Zone 9 who surrendered to authorities in 2007, Belmokhtar split with Droukdel over the latter’s ascent to the leadership of the GSPC (al-Watan [Algiers], August 15, 2007). According to Benmessaoud, Droukdel was only expected to be a temporary replacement for Sahraoui, but when it became clear that Droukdel would not step down, Belmokhtar removed himself from the organization (al-Watan, August 15, 2007). In so doing, Belmokhtar appears to have become a counterbalance to Droukdel’s leadership, even going so far as to criticize Droukdel’s leadership of the organization (Liberté [Algiers], April 1, 2009).
Al-Qaeda’s Bridge to Algeria
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 (see Jamestown’s Spotlight on Terror, March 21, 2005).
Belmokhtar’s contact with core al-Qaeda would continue through his move from the GIA to the GSPC. In 2002, Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the director of France’s Territorial Surveillance Directorate (Direction de la surveillance du territoire – DST), noted that al-Qaeda maintained direct lines of communication with Belmokhtar (Le Monde [Paris], September 12, 2002).  In his statement, de Florian highlighted French concern over the potential for al-Qaeda to use the GSPC to tap disaffected French citizens of Maghrabi extraction (Le Monde, September 12, 2002). Indeed, core al-Qaeda appears to have also maintained links with the senior GSPC leadership through European networks.  One report claimed that in the late 1990s when Hassan Hattab was forming the GSPC, bin Laden assisted Hattab in connecting with the GIA’s European networks through an intermediary in Germany named Mustapha Ait el-Hadi, reported to be a supporter of Belmokhtar (al-Watan, October 7, 2002).
Years later, Belmokhtar became the contact for al-Qaeda emissaries to the Algerian arena, starting at least as early as 2002 with Abu Mohamed al-Yemeni (a.k.a. Imad Abdelwahab Ahmed Alwan), a 37-year old Yemeni killed by Algerian troops in the Batna area in September 2002 (Liberté, October 23, 2003). He was reported to have been sent by core al-Qaeda to oversee the development and expansion of the GSPC’s activities (Le Matin [Algiers], November 28, 2002). Following al-Yemeni’s death, al-Qaeda reportedly sent additional emissaries, including Abd-al-Raqib, to liaise with the GSPC’s leadership by way of Belmokhtar (L’Expression [Algiers], January 6, 2003). 
The Kingpin in the Sahara
In addition to serving as a key facilitator between Algerian jihadi groups and al-Qaeda, Belmokhtar also became the key supplier of weapons and material in the Sahara region. His ability to supply jihadi elements in northern Algeria reliably has been critical to the ability for these groups to sustain their activities. Over the years that he has operated in this capacity, Belmokhtar has become increasingly integrated into the fabric of the Sahara and Sahel. 
To raise funds for his group, Belmokhtar has reportedly engaged in a range of activities, from smuggling cigarettes to levying protection tax on other traffickers traversing the region (Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 13, 2002). These activities earned Belmokhtar distinction and notoriety in counterterrorism communities and several monikers among the local population, including “Mister Marlboro,” reflecting his cigarette smuggling activities (L’Expression, May 19, 2003). As Belmokhtar expanded his activities, detractors argued that his interests had shifted from the Algerian jihad to a focus on self-aggrandizement and profit (Jeune Afrique-L’Intelligent, November 11, 2006).
Key to Belmokhtar’s Saharan activities has been his strong connections with local Tuareg communites. Mali’s Colonel El-Hadj Gamou, an ethnic Tuareg, stated in 2003 that Belmokhtar was granted safe haven by the Tuaregs provided he did not conduct hostilities on Tuareg lands (Le Figaro [Paris], March 19, 2007). Despite these links, Belmokhtar’s cabal has at times engaged in hostilities with Tuareg factions, including Ibrahim Ag Bahanga’s Alliance Démocratique du 23 mai pour le Changement (ADC). For instance, the two sides engaged in a series of skirmishes and targeted killings in October 2006 after Tuareg leaders in the ADC protested GSPC activities in their area (Quotidien d’Oran, October 2006; Reuters, November 2, 2006). 
Important to note is that despite his detachment from the GSPC and later AQIM, Belmokhtar appears to remain a critical supplier for the group. In early April 2009, there were reports that Algerian security services skirmished with an el-Moulathamine unit that included Belmokhtar. The cadre were said to have been entering Algeria from Libya on their way to an arms purchase with a Nigerien trafficker named “al-Hadj” (Liberté, April 1, 2009). 
Hostages and Influence
Perhaps Belmokhtar’s most publicized activities have been his involvement in the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists, the 2008 negotiations for the release of two Austrian hostages, and the 2009 negotiations for the release of two Canadian hostages (al-Khabar [Algiers], February 23, 2009). While Belmokhtar played only a secondary role in the 2003 hostage crisis led by Amari Saifi, he was central to the release of the Austrian and Canadian hostages.  In all three cases, Belmokhtar was not thought to have taken part in the initial kidnapping, only becoming involved once the hostages had been taken and negotiations initiated.  
His role in the negotiations for the release of the Austrians and Canadians indicates Belmokhtar’s formidable position and breadth of interests in the Sahara. For example, in September 2008 Belmokhtar reportedly proposed to swap the Austrian hostages for ransom payment and the release of two Mauritanian prisoners (Kurier [Vienna], September 12, 2008). In 2009, after negotiations for the release of the Canadian hostages had begun, Belmokhtar made a similar suggestion (Liberté, February 8). After acquiring control of the Canadian hostages, Belmokhtar was then in a position to negotiate directly for the Mauritanians’ release (Le Courrier d’Algerie, March 4, 2009). 
In the end, Belmokhtar was reportedly able to secure a €5 million ransom payment (from parties that remain undetermined) and the release of a number of militants, including Oussama al-Merdaci (Ennahar, April 28, 2009). Al-Merdaci is a veteran of Afghanistan who was arrested in 2008 by the Malian security services in Timbuktu as he was heading toward Somalia (Liberté, February 8, 2009; La Nouvelle Patrie, February 16, 2009). Interestingly, al-Merdaci is thought to have been close with Abdelmalek Droukdel (al-Watan, March 2, 2008). The fact that in each of these cases the hostages were brought into Mali for negotiations has led to speculation that Belmokhtar maintains senior contacts in the Malian government and military (Liberté, February 8, 2009; Ennahar, April 28, 2009).
Belmokhtar’s Future
Belmokhtar has been a fundamental element of the Algerian jihad stretching back to 1993, fulfilling key positions as amir for the southern zone, a key supplier of resources, and a point of contact for al-Qaeda. While relations between Belmokhtar and the mainstream AQIM leadership appear frayed, reports of his ongoing efforts to supply elements in the north with weapons and material as well as his sustained contacts with Abdelhamid Abou Zaid Essoufi and Yahia Djouadi indicate Belmokhtar remains connected with AQIM’s ongoing operations. 
His future, though, is a source of much speculation. The Algerian government recently claimed to have issued Belmokhtar his final warning to accept their amnesty offer or else he would be eliminated (al-Khabar, April 25, 2009). This would not be the first time that the Algerian government has made such threats or claimed to have killed Belmokhtar (al-Majallah, March 14, 1999). Amnesty negotiations have been rumored to be ongoing for several years through Tamanrasset businessman al-Hadj Bettou (Magharebia, April 28, 2008). In April 2008, Algerian media reported Belmokhtar and 15 of his men had surrendered to authorities, a claim which appears to have been false (Le Courrier d’Algerie, April 9, 2008).  
The potential for such an outcome however appears remote. Belmokhtar’s ongoing involvement in weapons trafficking and the 2008 and 2009 hostage crises indicates Belmokhtar is committed to maintaining his current capacity in the Sahara and Sahel regions. As his Tuareg tribal connections appear to remain warm and he reportedly maintains allies in the Malian government, Belmokhtar appears to have successfully woven himself into the fabric of the region.
[1] The biographical information presented here of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s early life is largely taken from an interview posted to jihadi forums on November 7, 2007.