This image from video provided by the SITE Intel Group made available Jan. 17 purports to show militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar. It could not be verified.
(Photo: SITE Intel Group via AP)
Oren Dorell, USA Today
The group behind the attack on the gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria, is led by a one-eyed Muslim jihadist with years of experience ransoming hostages.
"Signers in Blood" was created in December by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke off for unknown reasons from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terror group operating in the Saharan Desert that he helped found. The terrorists who attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, are linked to AQIM, according to the United States.
Belmokhtar fought in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and returned to Algeria in 1993 to join a jihadist group that later became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
His band has been behind several high profile hostage takings by AQIM over the past few years in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and southern Algeria, said Aaron Zelin, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The group also calls itself the "Masked Brigade" and it has often made pronouncements to the Maurtiania news agency ANI. Belmokhtar, who is in his 40s, has professed continuing loyalty to al-Qaeda and to its aim of worldwide Islam through force.
The news agency Agence France Presse said Wednesday it had received a telephone call from a person or persons who described themselves as hostage takers, and said, "We are members of al-Qaeda and we came from northern Mali. We belong to the (brigade) led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar."
AFP reports that Belmokhtar is known by French intelligence as "The Uncatchable" for the many times he has slipped through the fingers of the law.
Belmokhtar in 1998 founded the GSPC, a French acronym for The Salafist Group for Call and Combat, as an outgrowth of an earlier terrorist group that lost support for massacring thousands of Algerian civilians in that country's civil war. It then decided to instead focus on attacking the Algerian military and kidnapping Westerners, according to a profile of the group by the Anti-Defamation League.
GSPC joined al-Qaeda in 2006 and changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007, the ADL says. The ADL also describes Belmokhtar as the founder of AQIM.
His fighters have been involved in numerous attacks on military and civilian targets in Algeria, including a 2007 assassination attempt on Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika that killed 22 people, and the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003. An Algerian military raid resulted in one hostage killed and 17 rescued. Three months later, 14 hostages were released.
Belmokhtar's death at the hands of Algerian forces was falsely reported in 1999, according to a profile of Belmokhtar written by Navanti Group CEO Andrew Black for The Jamestown Foundation, a think tank.
"Belmokhtar has become detached from the Algerian jihad and is pursing his own vision of jihad in the Sahara," wrote Black who heads an international security and development consultancy.
After Belmokhtar returned from training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 1993, he became a key connection and facilitator between the al-Qaeda leaders and Algerian jihadis, Black said.
It's unclear how much support al-Qaeda provided, but Belmokhtar embarked on a campaign to raise money through a variety of schemes, from smuggling cigarettes, to demanding protection money from other traffickers and kidnappings. He gained a local nickname, "Mr. Marlboro," for his smuggling operations during this time.
He also developed strong connections to Mali's Tuareg tribes, who provided him a safe haven in 2003 with the understanding that he would not engage in violence on their territory.
Around this time he gained notoriety for his involvement in high-profile kidnappings of 32 Europeans tourists in 2003, two Austrian hostages in 2008 and two Canadian diplomats in 2009. In all three cases, he did not play an active role in the hostage taking, but was involved in negotiating their release and the collection of huge ransoms, Black said.
Belmokhtar collected millions of dollars in ransom and secured the release of several militants. Analysts say AQIM developed a vast war chest through kidnappings and other criminal activities that it has used to obtain Libyan weapons looted after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi last year.