'Mr Marlboro' lands a seismic blow

 

Share
Related Topics

"The Uncatchable One", "Mr Marlboro", "One-Eyed Jack": Khaled Abu al-Abbas aka Mokhtar Belmokhtar isn't short of colourful name tags. Considering the fact that this battle-hardened jihadist cum smuggling don has been the southern Sahara's public enemy number one for the past decade or more, that's hardly surprising.

Last Wednesday, before dawn, Belmokhtar refreshed this reputation in spectacular fashion when the raid he had masterminded on the Tingantourine gas works near In Amenas in eastern Algeria was launched, resulting in hostage deaths and placing acute strain on relations between Algeria and the West.

The story of his early years fighting for the mujahideen against the Russians in Afghanistan, and his subsequent rise through the ranks of Algeria's terrorist underworld, has been well documented. The question that still needs answering, however, is precisely why Belmokhtar's multinational force of mujahideen embarked on a kamikaze operation against one of the largest energy installations in North Africa.

Sahara watchers have been tracking Belmokhtar's movements with curiosity since last October when it was announced that he had been ousted from al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for "fractious behaviour" by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, supreme leader of the jihadi organisation.

Wadoud had apparently disapproved of Belmokhtar's criminal trafficking activities for years, but whether his dismissal was due to arguments over money or to Belmokhtar's strained relations with Abou Zeid, an arch-rival in the organisation who currently controls Timbuktu, isn't entirely clear.

In any case, Belmokhtar quickly formed a new brigade called "Those Who Sign with Their Blood", which, he proclaimed, would specialise in "martyr operations" and punish France for its aggressive attitude against Belmokhtar's fellow jihadists in Azawad – ie, northern Mali.

Just how Belmokhtar's men then managed to cross the thousands of kilometres of open desert between his base in Gao and In Amenas, with up to 100 men and 20 4x4 vehicles, unnoticed by the Algerian army or secret services, is a conundrum that will keep busy the conspiracy theorists who believe that AQIM is heavily infiltrated by the Algerian secret services.

Belmokhtar's choice of target for his brigade's first "martyrdom" operation was perhaps predictable. The Tingantourine plant is part owned by Algeria's state-run energy giant Sonatrach, one of the most reviled organisations in the country, by jihadists at least. Belmokhtar was no doubt aware that this would be a seismic strike which would reinstate his reputation as the most feared jihadi emir in the Sahara.

An Algerian ex-army officer speculated in the Algerian daily El Watan that the raid at In Amenas was part of a wider strategy to internationalise the conflict in northern Mali and force Western powers to send in their troops. This is precisely what the Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad Ag Ghali did when he attacked Konna, in Mali, on 11 January, which drew France into the conflict.

It may be a while before we can be sure whether Belmokhtar took part. But, given his reputation as "the uncatchable one", we might guess that the man with more lives than a desert wildcat has lived to fight another day.

Andy Morgan is a writer specialising in Saharan affairs

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: One of SThree's most successfu...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women-only train carriages would be an insult to both sexes  

Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes

Katie Grant
Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes  

Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes

Katie Grant
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style