By Myra MacDonald
LONDON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Mokhtar Belmokhtar lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan, swears allegiance to al Qaeda and named his son after Osama bin Laden.
As the assumed mastermind behind the seizure of foreign hostages at a gas plant in the Sahara, he has put Algeria back on the map of global jihad 20 years after its civil war made the country the theatre of a bloody Islamist struggle for power.
He has also burnished his jihadi credentials by showing that al Qaeda remains a potent threat to Western interests despite the death of its leader in Pakistan in 2011. And he has proved that a French military operation against his fellow Islamists in neighbouring Mali will not be contained within one country.
"He is a true believer in the cause," said Aaron Zelin, an al Qaeda expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A statement from Belmokhtar's Mulathameen group claiming responsibility for Wednesday's hostage-taking - which Algeria said its forces had ended on Thursday in an assault on the plant - demanded that France stop its military operations in Mali.
It also cited the battle being waged by al Qaeda-linked insurgents against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and condemned Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - highlighting the many fronts on which al Qaeda is now fighting, despite the erosion of its central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Born in central Algeria, Belmokhtar fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan before returning home to join a civil war that broke out after the cancellation in 1992 of elections that Islamists looked set expected to win.
He has been heavily involved with kidnapping and smuggling - which earned him the nickname "Marlboro Man" - leading some to suggest he was drifting away from a commitment to jihad in favour of making money from crime.
But with many militant groups around the world, including, for example, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, raising funding for their operations through crime, analysts suggest the depiction of him as a criminal may be exaggerated.
"These characterisations of him as exclusively or largely being just a criminal, there has never been real support for it," said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who has closely tracked developments in Mali.
"He has a very long jihadist pedigree."
In a rare interview with a Mauritanian news service in late 2011, Belmokhtar paid homage to bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahri.
He also cited traditional global preoccupations of al Qaeda, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the fate of Palestinians, and stressed the need to "attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests".
Belmokhtar was inspired, according to the Jamestown Foundation think tank, by the late Jordanian-Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden's mentor and a man whose ideology still has a powerful hold on the jihadi movement.
He probably went to Afghanistan after Azzam's death in Pakistan in 1989, narrowly missing an opportunity to join the jihad against the Russians who withdrew that year, and instead fighting with the mujahideen against the government in Kabul.
Once back in Algeria, he joined a group that fought in the civil war against the military-backed authorities in Algiers and launched spectacular attacks on French interests in the 1990s.
The group would mutate several times to eventually become al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - nowadays probably the wealthiest of the al Qaeda branches after reaping millions of dollars in ransom money paid quietly for the release of previous hostages. It and allied groups are now the targets of the French military operation in Mali.
Belmokhtar has been the object of persistent speculation that he may have split from AQIM due to rivalries with other commanders, notably Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid.
Such is the secrecy and lack of knowledge about AQIM, and the amount of disinformation believed to have been spread by various intelligence agencies seeking to break the group, that there is no way of knowing for sure.
But Lebovich said talk of deadly rivalries between the two appeared to be overblown.
"We know they are rivals," he said. "My reading, however, is that they, or their personnel, cooperate, or at least share resources and space, more frequently than people think."
Zelin, who tracks online forums closely, said AQIM appeared to have carried out a "controlled fragmentation" to strengthen itself against ethnic divisions by making way for different commanders to rise to the top of different groups.
Whatever the operational links between Belmokhtar and those fighting the French in Mali, it was clear the assault on the desert gas plant, which is likely to have had strong security, was carefully planned - almost certainly before French troops arrived last week.
"We know attacks like these take reconnaissance, target selection, training and manpower. It would be very high-risk," said Henry Wilkinson of the Risk Advisory Group consultancy.
He said the attack would prompt counter-terrorism specialists to take Belmokhtar's group more seriously as an al Qaeda-type organisation rather than a criminal syndicate:
"It suggests a much deeper long-term issue is at play."
Anis Rahamani, editor of the Algerian daily Ennahar, said Belmokhtar saw Algeria's south, with its high youth unemployment, as a recruiting ground.
"So Belmokhtar's action is also aimed at attracting and hiring more young Algerians."
Details of the Algerian operation on Thursday remained unclear, although an Algerian security source said 30 hostages had been killed, of whom at least eight were Algerian and seven foreign, including two Britons, two Japanese and a French national.
The gunmen who stormed the gas facility on Wednesday had said they were holding 41 foreigners. The British oil firm BP and Norway's Statoil run the plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company.
In moving so quickly against the hostage-takers, Algeria, scarred by the civil war, which claimed 200,000 lives, appeared determined to deny Belmokhtar the drawn-out siege that would have raised his standing even further.
"We say that, in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism," said Communication Minister Mohamed Said, according to the state news agency APS.
BEFORE YOU GO
01/18/2013 6:43 PM EST
2 American Hostages Still Unaccounted For
According to NBC News, U.S. officials have confirmed that the total number of Americans taken hostage on Wednesday was five. Of those, one was confirmed dead: Frederick Buttaccio of Texas. Two others managed to escape during Thursday's raid, while the remaining two are believed to be still in captivity. The militants had extended an offer to the U.S. to exchange two hostages for two jailed jihadists, which would account for the missing Americans.
The AP reported earlier that U.S. officials were refusing to disclose the exact number of remaining captives for fear that it might compromise their safety.
Read more at NBC News.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 5:44 PM EST
Who Is Mokhtar Belmokhtar?
The Huffington Post's Hunter Stuart has written a profile on the man known as "Mr. Marlboro," believed to be behind the attack in Algeria.
Called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, Belmokhtar is known to locals as more of a businessman than a terrorist, having consolidated his power by being a benefactor to the region's poor desert people.
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.
To read the entire profile, click here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 5:32 PM EST
17-year-old Abdullah Abdallah Ould Hmeïda has been identified by Mauritanian news agency Sahara as one of the al Qaeda-affiliated militants who laid siege on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. Ould Hmeïda, who joined the group at age 14, was killed in the Algerian military's rescue operation yesterday.
01/18/2013 4:48 PM EST
American Hostage Was Shot By Militant
The Guardian spoke to an Algerian oil worker who has since been freed from the gas plant. He provided harrowing details of the terrorists' actions and the subsequent raid by Algerian forces.
At 10am on Thursday, when the Algerian army assault began, he said he heard "explosions, shots, bombing and women's screams". Then the hostage-takers told local workers: "Algerian brothers, don't be afraid, go in peace, you're going to go home, we're your brothers, we're all Muslim." One American hostage who had been with his Algerian colleagues was wounded after a fall, another was shot by a militant. "I don't know if they'd seen he was American or if they were afraid when he moved," he said. The American did not die immediately, he said, but he understood the man had since died.
The State Department has confirmed the death of one American, reported by the AP to be Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. It is unclear whether Buttacio is the hostage described above.
To read the rest of the first-hand account, visit the Guardian.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 4:38 PM EST
Gallup: Algerians' Disapproval Of U.S. Leadership Among Highest In The World
A new Gallup poll reveals that Algerian approval of U.S. leadership has sunk to its lowest level since 2009, when Obama took office. In 2012, 68% of Algerians disapproved of U.S. leadership, rivaling the 71% rating received by the government under the Bush administration in 2008.
Algerians' disapproval of U.S. leadership is now among the highest in the world, behind only Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. As news of the hostage crisis in Algeria -- involving Americans among other foreigners -- continues to unfold, the data show that the U.S. may need to tread carefully in its handling of the situation. While it is unclear at this point how Algerians feel about the terrorists' actions, it is clear that the large majority of Algerians were disgruntled with U.S. leadership before this crisis and thus may be leery of any action the U.S. might take.
To see the full report, visit Gallup.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 4:30 PM EST
Fire At The Gas Plant
Al Arabiya English is reporting a massive fire at the In Amenas oil facility.
@ AlArabiya_Eng :
#BreakingNews: Reports of massive blaze in Algeria gas plant where hostages were held http://t.co/XxyjLaX6
01/18/2013 4:27 PM EST
Dead French Hostage Identified
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on Friday that at least one Frenchman was killed during the hostage crisis in Algeria. "The Algerian authorities have just informed us that one of our compatriots, Mr. Yann Desjeux, unfortunately lost his life during the operation to free hostages," Fabius said in a statement, according to Reuters. "The lives of three others of our compatriots who were on the site during the terrorist attack have been saved," he added.
01/18/2013 4:18 PM EST
Name Of Dead American Hostage Released
Per the AP, the American hostage who has died in Algeria is Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. How he died remains unclear.
To read more, click here.
01/18/2013 4:05 PM EST
Number Of Americans Still Being Held Unclear
The AP reports that Americans are still being held hostage, though the exact number remains unclear. After receiving an update from Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Secretary Clinton stressed that the "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."
Read more from the AP.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 3:38 PM EST
'Without The Ouster Of Gaddafi, There's No Mali'
In the Jan. 11 episode of The World This Week on France 24, Paris Match's Régis Le Sommier connected the dots between Mali and Libya, stating that the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi paved the way for the militant resistance in Mali.
"Libya has given these people a number of weapons, there's been an outflow of weapons toward these people. They have gathered in central Mali, they've created the conditions for a new tribal zone over there, bringing back some threats directly toward Europe from this region," Le Sommier said. "What have we left in Libya? What is the state of Libya now? Not that I worship Gaddafi, but weren't we much better off when Gaddafi was there?"
A number of the kidnappers and arms used in the Algeria attack are believed to have come from Libya.
Watch the clip below:
For the full episode of The World This Week, click here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson