ALGIERS – On Wednesday, an estimated 41 Western contractors were taken hostage inside the jointly run BP natural-gas facility in Amenas, in eastern Algeria, near the Libyan border.
The man believed to be responsible for this assault goes by the name Mokhtar Belmokhtar – also known as Khaled Aboul Abbas – one of the region's most feared Islamist militants.
A former leader of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the charismatic Algerian has been an active Islamist militant for many years. He was born June 1st, 1972, in Ghardaia, 300 miles south of Algiers and trained with the mujahidin in Afghanistan from 1991 to 1993. It was in those training camps that he first met those who would later become the leaders of Al-Qaeda. It was also in Afghanistan that he was hit by shrapnel – causing him to lose his left eye, earning him the nickname “the One-Eyed.”
When he first returned to Algeria in 1993, during the civil war, he was a military chief of the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) fighting government forces. He participated in the launch of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which later became the AQIM. He is believed to be responsible for numerous hostage-takings, including the one leading to the death of two young Frenchmen in Niger in Jan. 2011.
Two to three hundred militants
Belmokhtar’s organization has been based in Gao, northern Mali, for the past few years – at least until the French air force bombed the site on the Jan. 11.
The organization broke away from AQIM in Dec. 2012 to form its own movement – the Signed-in-Blood Battalion. “The Battalion was created by a dissident group or a group that was expelled from AQIM,” believes Dominique Thomas, a specialist in Islamist networks. “The group rallied around their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. With their recently acquired independence, they forged ties with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), which controls parts of eastern Mali, Gao and its surroundings,” he says.
This group comprises of 200 to 300 well-trained and heavily armed fighters. “His organization and the MOJWA were able to come to an agreement in Mali but we didn’t think his influence extended to Algeria. But since he is Algerian, he knows the terrain and has contacts,” says Dominique Thomas.
Before leaving the AQIM in 2012, Belmokhtar had said that he wanted to extend his Libyan networks, according to Thomas.
“The past disagreements – a result of incompatible egos – are erased with this operation, which was obviously a combined-effort,” says Thomas.
Belmokhtar has been criticized within his organization for his tendency to adapt to the local environment, notably with smuggling and trafficking. “This ran counter to AQIM’s official line, which represents itself as a virtuous and rigorous group, fighting against trafficking. In truth, though, they too adapt themselves to the local environment.” However, for them, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s trafficking had become “too organized,” says the specialist.