The Two-Way
4:58 pm
Thu January 17, 2013

Did This Man Order The Hostage Takings In Algeria?

Mokhtar Belmokhtar has had a few skirmishes in his day.

The former Algerian soldier went to Afghanistan to join Islamist fighters battling the Soviets in the 1980s. He returned home and rose to prominence among the Islamist rebels who waged a nasty war with the Algerian government in the 1990s.

For the past decade, he's remained an elusive figure. He's believed to have spent most of his time in Algeria's Sahara and has been regarded as one of the top figures in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

The years of battle cost him one eye, and he is widely known as "Mr. Marlboro" — a reference to his reputation as a cigarette smuggler, which is believed to finance his military operations.

During the past year, his name cropped up in the Islamist insurgency in neighboring Mali, where radicals have seized the northern part of the country. There were even reports that he was killed in Mali last summer.

But now, news reports from the region are citing Belmokhtar as the man who ordered the mass kidnapping at a gas plant in a remote part of eastern Algeria's Sahara. The kidnappings, which targeted Western workers, were allegedly in response to France's incursion into Mali in support of the government.

Algerian forces raided the plant on Thursday, the government said. The outcome was not immediately clear, though most reports said that some hostages had escaped and some had been killed, as were a number of militants.

Belmokhtar has been linked to the kidnapping of Westerners in Algeria previously, though his whereabouts and his role in the drama were not clear.

Jon Marks, a North Africa analyst at the British think tank Chatham House, told The Telegraph that Belmokhtar "is a pirate king of the Sahara."

"But like most of these Algerian groups he mixes criminality with ideology, with the balance on either aspect depending on the circumstances," Marks said.

Back in 2003, the United Nations Security Council linked Belmokhtar to Osama bin Laden and said that the Algerian was a key figure with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Belmokhtar apparently had a falling out with AQIM and last year established a separate group, the Signed in Blood Battalion.

Algerian courts have sentenced him in absentia three times, including a life-in-prison sentence handed down in 2004.

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