THE 20 armed kidnappers in Algeria are part of a group calling themselves Katibat Moulathamine, or “the Masked Brigade”, and they are led by the notorious Moktar Belmoktar – al-Qaeda’s kingpin in the Sahara.
Dubbed “the uncatchable” by French intelligence sources more than a decade ago, Belmoktar has been involved in militant attacks in the region for more than 20 years.
Although he is thought to have masterminded the operation, the attack itself was carried out under the leadership of a man called Abou El-Baraa, who the group claimed was among those killed when the Algerian army swooped on the site yesterday morning.
The black turban-wearing jihadist, who wears a false eye after losing the left one as a young man while he was at an al-Qaeda training camp, has been sentenced to death numerous times but has always escaped capture.
His death has been reported at least twice – the latest being as recently as last June, when it was believed he had died in clashes between Islamists and Tuareg separatists in northern Mali.
He had disappeared off the scene when he broke away from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb late last year, after falling out with the group’s leaders.
But this latest terrorist outrage heralds a return to front-line action for Belmoktar. He formed the Masked Brigade last month, recruiting both Algerian and Mauritanian fighters to his cause.
The sub group thought to be behind this specific attack has been named as the “signed-in-blood battalion”.
Trained in Afghanistan, where he fought Soviet forces in the late 1980s, 41-year-old Belmoktar is said to have been inspired to avenge the 1989 killing of Palestinian Islamist ideologue Abdullah Yusuf Azzam.
But, increasingly, he has turned to hostage-taking across the Sahara desert to further his cause – often demanding multi-million-dollar ransoms from western governments. That, along with the cigarette-smuggling that earned him another moniker, Mr Marlboro, finances his jihad.
In 2004, an Algerian court sentenced him in absentia to 20 years’ imprisonment for terrorism. Then in 2008, he was sentenced to death by another Algerian court for the murder of 13 customs officers.
Last month, the signed-in-blood battalion warned against any attempt to drive out the Islamists from northern Mali.
“We will respond forcefully [to all attackers]; we promise we will follow you to your homes and you will feel pain and we will attack your interests,” it reportedly declared.
A report by the Jamestown Foundation says Belmoktar has been able to operate across borders because of his deep ties to the region. “Key to [his] Saharan activities has been his strong connections with local Tuareg communities,” it said. “Belmokhtar is reported to have married four wives from local Arab and Tuareg communities.”