Algerian military forces on Jan. 17 launched an assault on the Amenas gas complex in the interior Sahara, where Islamists were holding dozens of hostages. Nearly 50 were killed in the raid, including 35 hostages, according to the spokesman of the militant group—variously named as “Battalion of the Masked” or “Signatories for Blood”—in a call to the Mauritanian news agency ANI. An Algerian government official called the number “exaggerated.” Veteran jihadist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar AKA “Laaouar” or “Lawar” (the One-Eyed) claimed responsibility for attacking the complex, jointly operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algerian parastatal Sonatrach. Belmokhtar was until recently a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but was pushed out of the group late last year in a factional split. He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.
Belmokhtar went to Afghanistan to fight in the Mujahedeen insurgency in 1991, losing an eye in battle. He returned to Algeria in 1993, a year after the government sparked civil war by annulling elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front. He joined the underground Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which was accused of a campaign of civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages. Belmokhtar made his base of operations in the lawless “Grey Zone” of the deep Sahara, where Algeria, Mali and Niger meet, establishing a power base there through a network of tribal alliances that he cemented through marriage. In 1998, as the civil war began to wind down, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA to continue the insurgency; Belmokhtar, now also nicknamed “The Uncatchable” by French intelligence, went with them. Nine years later, the GSPC formally became al-Qaeda’s North African franchise, and reorganized as AQIM.
French intelligence maintains that Belmokhtar funds his network through his control of smuggling routes through the Grey Zone—illegal drugs, contraband cigarettes, stolen cars and human trafficking. The cigarette racket won him yet another nickname—”Mr. Marlboro.” But his involvement in drugs runs contrary to al-Qaeda’s puritanical ideology, and regional officials say this led to Belmokhtar being purged by AQIM supremo Abdelmalek Droukdel for “straying from the right path.” AQIM apparently had Belmokhtar recalled from northern Mali, where had been sent to back up one of the Islamist militias that have seized power there, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
Belmokhtar nonetheless seems to have seized the Amenas facility in protest of the French intervention in Mali. He and his followers had been demanding a corridor allowing them to escape acorss the desert to Libya. It remains uncertain whether he or his followers have survived the assault. (Middle East Online, Middle East Online, Magharebia, North Africa United, NYT, WP, Jan. 17; AFP, Oct. 15)