Is ‘Mr. Marlboro’ Behind the ‘Act of Terror’ in Algeria?

UPDATE:

CNN has more on “the man claiming responsibility for the operation [who] is a veteran jihadist who is also renowned for hostage-taking and smuggling anything from cigarettes to refugees.”

Read it here

Original Post:

Still reeling from partisan Republican accusations that the Obama administration waited too long to call the Benghazi tragedy a terrorist attack, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wasted no time, minced no words and “pulled no punches” in calling the attack on the In Amenas gas field in Algeria and the subsequent hostage-taking a “terrorist attack,” an “act of terror.”

Yesterday the State Department, was more cautious. A Senior State Department Official:

The Algeria question is evolving. Information is still coming in on that. That is an issue that is largely in the hands of our Middle East bureau. We are following it from a southern angle, but the information is still sketchy and evolving, and I’d rather not comment on a situation in which we may make comments that could impact the safety and security of those individuals who have been reportedly kidnapped.

I might just add for geography’s sake that where we are hearing about this incident, it is up in the upper northeastern corner of Algeria close to the Libyan border, not close to the Malian border.

Whether the “hostage takers” are called militants, rebels, fighters, or whatever and whether now or in the future a ransom is demanded, the actions, the violence, blood-letting, allegiances, goals and all the statements made thus far by those associated with this “operation” leave no doubt but that these individuals are terrorists committing acts of terror.

Already several shady and not-so-shady groups have claimed responsibility, among them members of Algerian-based Islamic militant groups ‘Masked Brigade’ and the ‘Signers in Blood,’” according to the Hill.

(The BBC also says, “Two groups led by Belmokhtar – the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion” claim to be behind the attack.)

The Algerian Interior Minister claims that the attackers are Algerians operating under orders from Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) up to last year, when he set up his own armed group after apparently falling out with other leaders, according to the BBC.

As to the motives, several sources claim that the attack is in retaliation to the French-led offensive against al Qaeda safe havens in northern Mali.

According to the Boston Globe, there was no indication in a statement made by a group called Al Mulathameen, which has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,that the gas-field attackers wanted money. “Instead, in a statement sent to a Mauritanian news agency, they demanded the ‘immediate halt of the aggression against our own in Mali.’”

The Manila Times reports that one of the kidnappers, identified as Abu al-Baraa, has called for the release of Islamist extremists being held in neighboring Mali. “Our detainees for theirs,” he said.

In a statement carried on Mauritanian media, the Signed-in-Blood Battalion said it would hold the Algerian and French governments and the nations of the hostages responsible if its demands were not met, saying they must bring an end to the French intervention in Mali.

As the reader may have already noted, the name one encounters most frequently when trying to ascertain who is behind this terrorist attack, is Mokhtar Belmokhtar — “a one-eyed war veteran with the nickname ‘Mr Marlboro.’” (Known as “The One-Eyed” as he wears an eyepatch over a lost eye.)

The BBC tells us that he earned the nickname Mr. Marlboro “because of his role in cigarette-smuggling across the Sahel region to finance his jihad, now waged under the banner of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.”

For an interesting “profile”of Mr. Marlboro, read here.

Here are some (paraphrased) excerpts:

Born in Ghardaia in eastern Algeria in 1972, Mr. Belmokhtar – according to interviews posted on Islamist websites – was attracted as a schoolboy to waging jihad.

Inspired to avenge the 1989 killing of Palestinian Islamist ideologue Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, he travelled to Afghanistan as a 19 year old to receive training from al-Qaeda.

When he returned to Algeria in 1993, Belmokhtar joined the conflict there and became a key figure in the militant Armed Islamist Group (GIA) and later the breakaway Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

When the GSPC merged with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Mr. Belmokhtar headed an AQIM battalion in the desert between Algeria and Mali.

After AQIM stripped him of his title as “emir of the Sahel” as a result of in-fighting, Mr. Belmokhtar launched the Signed-in-Blood Battalion last year.

And that brings Mr. Marlboro to the attack on the gas facility in Algeria, “its first big operation, showing that he remains influential despite his marginalisation within AQIM.”

As a somber footnote, Robert Fowler, former UN Niger envoy was captured by Belmokhtar loyalists outside Niger’s capital, Niamey, in December 2008, and then “frog-marched and thrown into the back of a truck… We began our descent into hell – a 1,000km [600-mile] journey northwards, into the Sahara Desert.” He says, “I think I know instinctively what they [the latest hostages captured in Algeria] are going through.”

Read more here

Image: www.shutterstock.com

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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