It should come as no surprise that a notorious jihadist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar is suspected of ordering the raid on a BP oil field in eastern Algeria and the subsequent kidnapping of dozens. Belmokhtar has been at this game for a while. His career shows that jihadist ideology and criminality can comingle. Belmokhtar’s operations have run the gamut, from cigarette smuggling to gunrunning to kidnappings to outright murder. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a loyal ideologue to al Qaeda, too.
In late 2012, Belmokhtar, a longtime al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander, decided to break away from the al Qaeda affiliate and forge his own group. There was apparently a dispute between Belmokhtar and AQIM’s chief. According to his spokesman, however, Belmokhtar remained loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in South Asia.
The Associated Press interviewed Oumar Ould Hamaha, “an associate” of Belmokhtar's, by phone in December. Hamaha, who has held leadership positions inside each of the al Qaeda-linked groups that rule northern Mali, explained Belmokhtar’s motivation for creating his own splinter group.
“It's true,” Hamaha told the AP. “It's so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the 'Maghreb' appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso.”
The AP’s report continued: “Hamaha said, however, that while he and Belmokhtar have left the North African branch, they remain under the orders of al Qaida central.”
Belmokhtar has operated within the al Qaeda orbit since the early 1990s, when he first joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) after returning from the jihad in Afghanistan. Hundreds of Arab Afghans helped found the GIA. While the GIA became deeply enmeshed in Algeria’s brutal civil war, which Belmokhtar reportedly participated in, it also became one of the first al Qaeda-style groups to stage a hijacking.
In December 1994, four GIA terrorists hijacked an Air France flight leaving Algiers. They planned to have the pilot fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower. Their plan failed after the plane was forced to land and French Special Forces boarded it, killing the hijackers in the process.
Al Qaeda studied the failed 1994 hijacking carefully and even wrote up an after-action report on it. The terror network has always been a learning, adaptive enemy. This early case study is a good example of how al Qaeda-affiliated groups have always been able to engage in “local” insurgency-style fighting, which comprises the majority of their operations (including Belmokhtar’s), even while plotting spectacular international terrorist attacks.
An offshoot of the GIA, the Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), overtook its predecessor. A GSPC recruit, Ahmed Ressam, plotted to blow up LAX airport in California at the turn of the millennium.
Other GSPC operatives fanned out across Europe, where they became involved in the al Qaeda hydra. Like the GIA, senior GSPC leaders maintained cozy relations with al Qaeda and, eventually, formally merged with bin Laden’s group. (Al Qaeda’s hand in the GSPC long predated the formal merger.)
Belmokhtar was a GSPC commander and migrated with other members to its successor organization, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The attack in Algeria, which resulted in a large number of hostages, must be the largest kidnapping operation of its kind to date by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in the region. Belmokhtar has orchestrated kidnappings before, but nothing on this scale.
The Belmokhtar-headed group that has claimed responsibility for the attack calls itself the “Those who Sign with Blood” Brigade. In its statement claiming responsibility, which was disseminated to news outlets and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, Belmokhtar’s group demanded that France retreat from Mali.
The brigade called the attack a “blessed invasion” and said it was in retaliation for the French trying to “to break the Islamic ruling system in” Mali. The brigade also said its attack occurred “while the Muslims are moaning under the butcher Bashar al Asad in wounded Syria, in the sight and ear shot of the whole world.”
“This invasion comes in the global campaign of fighting the Jews and the Crusaders,” Belmokhtar’s men said.
The echo of al Qaeda's many calls for global jihad is unmistakable.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.