2018/06/14 – The London-based Saudi magazine, El Majalaa, is reporting that Mokhtar Belmokhtar is still alive, contrary to U.S. claims in 2013, 2015, and 2016 that he had been killed in Libya. The report, which cites correspondence with Libyan and Algerian intelligence services, states that he is operating in the largely ungoverned spaces between Chad, Niger, and Mali.
Born in Algeria in 1972, Belmokhtar fought as a jihadi in the Afghan and Algerian civil wars. He lost an eye in Afghanistan, earning him the nickname “the One-Eyed.” He is also called “Mr. Marlboro” because of his involvement in cigarette smuggling, and “the Uncatchable” because of his ability to outwit his pursuers. Considered “the world’s most wanted Algerian,” he has twice been sentenced to death in absentia by Algerian authorities.
While Belmokhtar is most often associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), he also has close ties with other Islamist groups. His marriages with indigenous Berbers and Tuaregs—he has taken two wives from each group—further extend his network in the Sahel. In 2012, he established the al-Mulathameen Brigade (the Brigade of the Masked Ones), which quickly gained prominence after carrying out an attack in early 2013 on the French-owned Tigantourine gas facility in southern Algeria. More than eight hundred hostages were taken, forty of whom were executed before the plant was liberated by the Algerians. Other kidnappings by Belmokhtar involved the capture of two Canadian diplomats and a number of Europeans, fetching ransoms that reportedly helped AQIM become the wealthiest al-Qaeda affiliate. During the Islamist occupation of northern Mali in late 2013, Belmokhtar merged al-Mulathameen with a Tuareg group to establish al-Mourabitoun (the Sentinels).
Though literally up to his elbows in blood, Belmokhtar enjoys folk hero status among some in the Sahel. As for his disappearance, some credibly hypothesize he was badly wounded in Libya, but not killed, and that he has been convalescing. If so, one must assume that he will once again become active.
There are similarities between Belmokhtar and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau. Official authorities have regularly reported that both have been killed, even when they have not. Both have links to Islamist groups outside of West Africa, though there is little evidence of tactical of strategic cooperation. And both appear to have strong ties to local populations. That said, there is no evidence in the public domain that suggests Belmokhtar and Shekau are in contact.
Council on Foreign Relations