Mokhtar Belmokhtar, The One-Eyed Jihadist Mastermind Of Algerian Hostage Crisis

Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Hélène Sallon et Christophe Châtelot

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!