Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the new face of al-Qa'ida (and why he's nothing like Osama bin Laden)

Robert Fisk on what he really means in the 'war on terror'

“Had he his hurts before?” Siward asks of his slain son in Macbeth. He wants to know if his son’s wounds proved he was fighting Macbeth’s goons when he died, or whether – if stabbed in the back – he had been running away. Macbeth would have made a pretty good Middle Eastern dictator, obsessed with power, murdering his rivals, oppressing his people under the fatal influence of a spoiled, ruthless wife. And al-Qa’ida, in its battles with its infidel enemies – the Russians, the Americans, Israel, the West and the Arab potentates who do, or did, our bidding – does not run away. Their battle wounds are part of their personalities.

Osama bin Laden boasted to me of the Russian bullet scars burnt into his body in Afghanistan – three in all – and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who wore the Prophet’s cloak in Kandahar, has always rejoiced in the eye he lost to his enemies. And now we have Mokhtar Belmokhtar with another eye lost to God’s enemies.

This Cyclops wears no patch to hide his wound. Was it shot out by the pro-Western “mujahedin” in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal? Or blown from his face when he was “mishandling” explosives during the war, when Belmokhtar and his cronies were still heroes, our equivalent – once, in Ronald Reagan’s eyes – of the Founding Fathers?

Now he hides in – or bestrides, if you believe what you are told – Mali. Al-Qa’ida is back in action, but this Algerian war veteran is an intriguing symbol of the path down which Osama bin Laden’s damaged creation now slouches. For Belmokhtar’s Afghan war record is clouded by his cruel participation in the vicious 1990s conflict with the military regime in his own country – he was born in the Algerian city of Ghardaia 40 years ago – and by the corruption which has embraced so many North African Islamist militias.

When he travelled to Afghanistan, he was only 19; when he fought the equally ruthless pro-government paramilitaries in Algeria, he had learnt that wars do not necessarily end, that victory is achieved through the humiliation of your enemies, rather than military conquest.

But Belmokhtar was a child of his country’s history. Born almost exactly a year after the French colonial power retreated from Algeria, he grew up speaking the language of his country’s former oppressors. His French was perfect, and those few Westerners who met him – usually as his captives – were to recall his fluency. Kalashnikov at his feet, Belmokhtar would ostentatiously read the Koran – the mirror image of Bin Laden – as a leader of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and then, having left its ranks long after its apparent defeat in Algeria, as the chef of al-Muwaqqiun bil Dima, uncomfortably but chillingly translated as “Those Who Sign With Blood”. Those who were to survive the atrocities at the In Amenas gas field last week – and, I suppose, those who did not – were to discover what this meant.

In a video, Belmokhtar has spoken of the struggle against disbelief – in other words, us, the West – the importance of Islamic law and the Islamic project in northern Mali. He is too canny a man not to have realised that Mali’s torment springs from the decades-long northern Tuareg-Berber-Arabophone refusal to be governed by a black administration in the south, but he was drawn – like Bin Laden in Afghanistan – into a land where centralised power was weak or non-existent. While human rights groups recorded ferocious Islamist punishments – executions, amputations, the oppression of women; the list is familiar – he spoke of a sharia which fed the poor, created justice between Muslims, and equal rights.

Andrew Lebovich, an Africa analyst in Dakar, has drawn attention to the fact that Belmokhtar’s jihadism may be very real, despite his involvement in smuggling and trafficking, and that his public statements should be studied and taken seriously. Northern Mali was threatened by “the Crusader Western nations, especially France”, Belmokhtar announced, and aggressors would be would be fought “in their homes”, and “experience the heat of wounds” in their own countries, and their interests attacked. Here, indeed, was a warning about In Amenas. Prophetic, should we say?

Belmokhtar greeted Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the “persevering emir”. In other words, he was re-asserting his loyalty to original al-Qa’ida principles. But the problem – which we in the West refuse to comprehend – is that al-Qa’ida itself has changed. The days when this dangerous institution demanded a world-wide Islamic caliphate are long gone. The Arab Awakening – the mass Arab revolts against dictatorship – turned Bin Laden into yesterday’s man. His television viewing at Abbottabad in the days before his execution by the Americans proved to Bin Laden that not a single protester – from Cairo to Damascus to Yemen – waved an al-Qa’ida flag or carried his photograph.

Indeed, among Bin Laden’s last communications with followers in Yemen was a demand for a translation of an article I wrote in The Independent, in which I described al-Qa’ida – following its involvement with Sunni suicide killers of Shias in Iraq – as the most sectarian organisation in the world. Bin Laden had long protested against  the outfit’s role in the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq. And so a re-positioned al-Qa’ida has emerged.

Abdel Bari Atwan of the newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi – who understands the dark soul of al-Qa’ida better than anyone else – has spoken of how Bin Laden always spoke “longingly” of the Atlas mountains of the Maghreb – the Tora Bora of north Africa – and of America’s interests in Africa itself. Many of Bin Laden’s legionnaires decamped from Afghanistan to Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger, even Nigeria. The US now imports as much oil from Nigeria as it does from Saudi Arabia, the country of Bin Laden’s own citizenship. Like Gaddafi – whom Bin Laden loathed – al-Qa’ida appreciated the economic importance of Africa. Had Bin Laden himself not spent five years in dangerous exile in Sudan?

In a weird but very clear way, the results of the fearful Algerian civil war were in Belmokhtar’s favour. President Bouteflika, France’s dearest friend in the new North Africa, called a successful referendum which effectively pardoned Islamist fighters while excusing the government’s mass torturers and execution squads. Thus the weaker brethren of the Islamist revolt went home while the hard, unforgiving men emigrated into the deserts and across the Algerian border. Belmokhtar inherited a “cleansed” al-Qa’ida katiba – and a new version of Bin Laden’s battle.

Henceforth al-Qa’ida’s “purity of arms” – and this was never admitted – would be directed not towards the hopeless aspiration of a world caliphate, but at struggles which could humble Islam’s kafir enemies. Bin Laden’s battle tactics remained unchanged; only his philosophy would be gently abandoned. Now his fighters – in the hands of Belmokhtar or his latest rival, the supposedly ascetic Abdulhamid Abu Zeid – must humble the Western armies they can persuade to intervene in the Muslim world. Just as every Western soldier that could be induced into Afghanistan and Iraq was a target, so every French soldier arriving in Mali must be a target.

Humble the West’s mighty armies and draw them into perfidy with their bloody allies. That is now al-Qa’ida’s order of battle. The more France – and America and Britain – can be provoked to ally themselves with the ferocious Algerian government or the killers in the Malian army, the greater al-Qa’ida’s victory. Already, French and British horror at the Algerian slaughter of hostages and insurgents alike at In Amenas has been deleted from the record. David Cameron naively – and with a script that might have been written by Belmokhtar – has proclaimed that “our determination is stronger than ever to work with allies right around the world to root out and defeat this terrorist scourge”. Quite apart from Cameron’s appalling clichés (“root out”, “scourge”) – which oddly parallel al-Qa’ida’s boring rhetoric – this effectively allies the United Kingdom with the killer regime in Algeria. Plenty of Macbeths there.

Now human rights groups are reporting the revenge murder of Tuareg civilians in newly “liberated” towns by the Malian army. “Western diplomats”, that all-purpose bunch of mountebanks so beloved of us journos, are now said to “have long warned that the [Malian] army would become involved in revenge killings. Pity they didn’t tell us that a month ago. And then we have the French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, divulging to us that Belmokhtar’s insurgents have “diversified their tactics. They can leave a town at any time, or mingle with the population… It’s urban guerrilla warfare, as well as a war, so it’s very complicated to manage.” And he didn’t tell us that a month ago, did he?

The Associated Press – not, I must admit, my favourite agency of world truth – published a remarkable, brilliant report by Rukmini Callimachi this week, an account of how Belmokhtar’s fellow jihadist Abdulhamid Abu Zeid arrived in the Malian town of Diabaly, took over civilian homes with the help of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, hid to avoid French air strikes, gave gifts to children, offered to pay rent and money for water and, guarded by five armed men, ate boxes of food imported from Algeria. “He ate spaghetti and powdered milk, read the Koran and planned a war,”

And there you have it. Ignore them, and you have lost the “war on terror”. Fight them, and you face humiliation. The Algerian Belmokhtar understands this. We do not. Diversified tactics, the French minister tells us. Mingling with the population. Camouflage. Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

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