Undated grab from a video obtained by ANI Mauritanian news agency reportedly shows former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location
BAMAKO (AFP) – Wily one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed the attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso, shot to global notoriety with a spectacular assault on an Algerian gas field in 2013, but had long been known as “The Uncatchable”.Washington has offered a $5 million (4.7 million euros) bounty for the 43-year-old, born and bred in the Algerian desert, and of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region straddling the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar who is most wanted.
He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south of his homeland, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed.
And his Al-Murabitoun group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, also claimed responsibility for the jihadist siege at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako that left 20 dead in November, including 14 foreigners.
In May last year, he reaffirmed that Al-Murabitoun remained loyal to Al-Qaeda, denying the claim of allegiance to the Islamic State group made by another of the movement’s leaders.
He was born in 1972 in the ancient desert city of Ghardaia, 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital.
In a rare 2007 interview, he said he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, joining them in 1991 when he was barely 19 years old.
– Smuggling baron –
It was in Afghanistan that he claims to have lost his eye to shrapnel and where he had his first contact with Al-Qaeda, whose ranks he joined, eventually rising to a senior position.
He returned to Algeria in 1993, a year after the government sparked civil war by cancelling an election the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.
He joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent campaign of civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages.
Belmokhtar thrived thanks to his intimate knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger.
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, now also nicknamed “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, went with them.
Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
These Islamists have spun a tight network across tribal and business lines that stretch across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone, supporting poor communities and protecting all kinds of traffickers.
They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have made millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages.
With a reputation as a smuggling baron — dealing in contraband cigarettes, stolen cars and even drugs, as well as profiting from illegal immigration networks — Belmokhtar’s commitment to AQIM’s puritanical brand of Islam was questioned by some members of the group.
But in January 2013, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood”, led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algerian gas field assault.
It took place a few days after France launched a military operation to help Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.
Then in May 2013, two months after reportedly being killed by Chadian troops in Mali, Belmokhtar claimed deadly attacks against Niger’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger.