ALGIERS, Algeria — Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a man of many names. His entourage calls him “the Prince,” a term of endearment and reverence for this 41-year-old Algerian war veteran. Others refer to him as “Laaouar,” or the One-Eyed, in reference to an event that occurred after he went off to fight jihad in Afghanistan at the age of 19 — a piece of shrapnel flew into his eye and blinded him, and so he now often wears an eye patch.
Still, more refer to him as “Mr. Marlboro” due to the cigarette-smuggling monopoly he created across the Sahel, one of the poorest regions in the world, to fund his jihad.
It seems, at least to French officials, that the infamous Mr. Marlboro is “uncatchable;” his narrow escapes leave many wondering when his luck is going to run out. The man has been sentenced to death and even declared dead numerous times, but he continues to reappear.
1991 marked the beginning of the Algerian Civil War, a gruesome conflict sparked by an election that the Islamic Salvation Front was on the brink of winning. The opposing side cancelled the election due to fear of the Islamic Salvation Front’s (ISF) impending victory.
Furious with the outcome of the election, Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993 and joined the Armed Islamic Group, which ended up massacring thousands of civilians in its campaign against the government. He later co-founded an off-shoot organization known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been linked to the attack on the United States Consulate in Libya last September. The attack killed four people, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
According to Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Belmokhtar was caught “straying from the right path” and was subsequently removed from his leadership position in the group. Mr. Marlboro was apparently to blame; Belmokhtar’s return to smuggling and trafficking ran in stark opposition to the group’s official line, which presents itself as virtuous.
This relegation prompted him to found The Signers in Blood jihadists, also known as the Masked Brigade. Allied with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another Islamist group broken off from Al-Qaeda, Mr. Marlboro was back in business his way.
Focusing on his areas of expertise–criminal activities like kidnapping and smuggling — Belmokhtar has been central to hostage-taking and subsequent negotiations for their release in 2003, 2008, and 2009. People who have met the man describe him as experienced and cautious. Locals apparently regard him with respect and simultaneous fear.
“He’s a fairly slight, very serious, very confident-looking guy who moves with quiet authority,” said Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat and United Nations special envoy to Niger, who was kidnapped by Belmokhtar’s brigade in 2008.
Continuing to say, “He’s clearly been in the business of being a terrorist and surviving for a long time. I was always impressed by the quiet authority he exhibited.”
Malian journalist Malick Aliou Maïga, who met “the Prince” summer of 2012, described him as taciturn, watchful, and wary.
Maïga recalled seeing Belmokhtar leaving a hospital in Gao with his entourage, dressed in black and wearing a turban that covered his lost eye. The journalist called out to him, and a bodyguard quickly interfered, warning him, “You must not. That is the Prince.”
Though very untrusting of people, Belmokhtar believes himself to be a representative of the majority. In an interview with Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar in Gao last November, Belmokhtar said he respected “the clearly expressed choice” of the people of northern Mali “to apply Islamic Shariah law.”
He also warned against any foreign intervention, saying that any country that did so would be considered “an oppressor and aggressor who is attacking a Muslim people applying Shariah on its territory.”
Mr. Marlboro does not shy away from his deeds; he’s quite proud of the decimation he has caused. After claiming responsibility for a deadly attack on the BP co-owned in Amenas gas plant last January, Belmokhtar posted a video saying, “We in Al Qaeda announce this blessed operation.”
The “blessed operation” involved his troops storming the facility with machine guns and grenades, strapping explosives to the necks of Western hostages, claiming that they had only come for the Christians then surrounding the plant with mines before demanding that France stop its attacks on rebels in neighboring Mali.
Several days of tense negotiations brought no solution. Algerian Special Forces then stormed the compound in a widely-criticized operation which took the lives of 29 militants and 37 foreign captives.
Thought to have been killed during a French/Chadian army operation that destroyed a terrorist base in March, DNA tests later proved the body to be that of Abou Zeid, another Al-Qaeda leader.
Belmokhtar was sentenced in absentia to lifetime imprisonment for forming terrorist groups, robbery, detention and use of illegal weapons in June 2004 by an Algerian tribunal. He was also sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in March 2007 by a criminal court in Algeria for terrorism, kidnapping and involvement with illegal weapons trafficking.
In March 2008, the court of Ghardaïa, Algeria sentenced Belmokhtar in absentia to lifetime imprisonment for the murder of 13 customs officers.
Despite his numerous convictions, Belmokhtar is still not in custody. He is thought to be currently hiding in Libya.
– Samantha Davis