Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Rebel Leader Behind Algeria Hostage Crisis, Has Long And Mysterious History

01/18/2013 05:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2013

The rebel leader said to be behind the taking of more than 600 hostages at a natural gas plant in the Algerian desert Wednesday has more than two decades of experience waging jihad in Africa and the Middle East.

The 40-year-old, Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar was once described as a "cross between Robin Hood and Osama Bin Laden," the BBC notes.

Belmokhtar, who is also known as "Mr. Marlboro" for his robust cigarette-smuggling operation, has consolidated his power partly through being the benefactor to the poor desert people of southern Algeria and northern Mali, according to multiple sources, including Al Jazeera.

It's in these regions where Belmokhtar conducts his extensive operations, which are part jihad, part commercial-enterprise.

Belmokhtar, who has been called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence agents, is known to locals more as a businessman than a terrorist, The Globe and Mail wrote in 2009.

"He is not a bad man," an Arab leader from Mali told the paper. "He's simple. He's not nasty. It's possible to talk to him."

The Globe and Mail also notes that Belmokhtar is said to be close with high-ranking members of the Malian government, who let him operate with impunity in exchange for not attacking Malian targets.

Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who spent more than four months with Belmokhtar's rebel group after being kidnapped in Niger in 2008, said of Belmokhtar and his men, "This is the most focused group of individuals I have ever met."

But Belmokhtar, who's also known by his alias Khaled Abu al Abbas, has a reputation for extremism.

An Algerian court sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for the 2006 mass murder of 13 customs officers, according to the United Nations.

In addition, a jihadi group he led has been linked to the 2003 kidnapping of 31 European tourists who were traveling in Algeria, according to the Associated Press. Many of the captured tourists were held in the desert for a period of more than five months. One of the hostages died of heatstroke, Al Jazeera notes.

In the early 2000s, Belmokhtar was a leader of an Islamic militia called The Salafist Group for Prayer and Combat (GSPC), which was formed from remnants of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), a jihadi militia that the U.N. holds responsible for killing hundreds of Algerians in the 1990s as well as executing a number of other terrorist attacks, including a series of bombings in the Paris subway in 1995 that killed 10 people and injured 200.

Until recently, Belmokhtar was a senior commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but split from the group last year to form his own militia, called Those Who Sign With Blood.

The group's ability to take over such a high-profile target as the In Amenas gas plant, and to hold captive such a large number of hostages, illustrates its power and dexterity in the region.

Fowler, the canadian diplomat held for 130 days by Belmokhtar and his men, told NPR that they "represesnt an enormous threat." He warned that the recent rebel takeover of Mali is especially problematic, saying, "This is the first time that al Qaeda really has a country, a more or less secure base from which to operate."

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