Belmokhtar: Profile Of Mr Marlboro
Updated: 12:54am UK, Sunday 03 March 2013
By Sam Kiley, Middle East Correspondent
He was known as Mr Marlboro because of his cigarette smuggling. The French intelligence service called him "The Uncatchable".
Born in central Algeria in 1972, Mokhtar Belmokhtar grew obsessed with Jihadi ideology in his teens. At 19 he volunteered to fight alongside the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
He missed most of the fighting there as the Soviets withdrew as he arrived but he did encounter senior members of what was to become al Qaeda - receiving training in a Jalalabad base.
In the early 1990s he returned to Algeria to join Islamic militant groups. He served them as a quartermaster - rapidly rose to dominate operations in the south of the country during the Algerian civil war.
Described by the then head of France's Territorial Surveillance Directorate (Direction de la surveillance du territoire – DST) as Algeria's link to al Qaeda, Belmokhtar maintained strong links to the movement's core in Pakistan.
But he was a vital element in the expansion of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A franchise of the Jihadi movement AQIM was seen as the poorly performing franchise during the last decade.
But Belmokhtar forged links with Tuareg rebels in the south Sahara from Mali to Niger and into Mauritania.
He rapidly expanded a criminal empire to fund his political and military operations from smuggling cigarettes, diamonds, drugs and people into Europe.
He further stuffed his war chest with funds from hostage taking operations. In 2003 he was implicated in the kidnapping of 32 Europeans in the Sahara.
In 2008, he took control of negotiations for the release of two Austrian hostages. And in 2009 took control of two Canadians kidnapped in Mali and released by him for allegedly £3m and freedom for several of his associates from Malian jails.
Robert Fowler was a UN special envoy in Mali when he was kidnapped and then handed on to Belmokhtar.
He described the man who has now projected himself on to the world stage from the relative obscurity of the Saharan wastes.
"He is very cold. Very business-like. I was afraid for my life all the time. I was afraid for my life when I woke up in the morning and when I went to sleep at night. He is a very serious player," Mr Fowler told ABC News in the US.
Belmokhtar's movement got a huge boost from the collapse of the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Tuareg fighters he had employed from Niger, Mali and Chad, fled his service carrying with them vast stockpiles of heavy weapons and bringing many years of combat experience.
This influx of new weapons and fighters allowed for al Qaeda-related groups to capture much of northern Mali and establish closer links between groups from Mauritania to Somalia and into the Arabian Peninsula.
Some intelligence agencies believe that Belmokhtar fell out with the AQIM leader in the north of Africa, Abdulmalek Droukel.
But al Qaeda is a franchise. Its strength lies in fragmentation. A devolved series of groups are harder to infiltrate or destroy than one large organisation.
Al Qaeda expert Aaron Zelin describes this as "controlled fragmentation".
French intelligence services had been trying to kill or capture Belmokhtar for more than a decade. They believed that he had the capacity to mobilise French citizens with their roots in North Africa for terror operations inside Europe.
After France launched its war against Islamists in Mali, many of whom are connected to Belmokhtar, his organisation which calls itself "The Masked Ones", vowed to continue attacks against western targets in Africa and beyond.
Belmokhtar's attack in Algeria meant his name was heard more widely as his movement posed a strategic threat to Europe's energy supplies.