Kidnapper aims to build Sahara-wide jihad group

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An ALGERIAN-born jihadist who heads one of the most powerful cells of al-Qaeda’s North African branch has decided to leave the “franchise” in order to create a movement spanning the entire Sahara desert.

Moktar Belmoktar, formerly the head of a cell of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is one of the most prolific kidnappers operating in Mali’s lawless north. He is linked to the abduction of a group of tourists in 2003 in southern Algeria, and of the top United Nations diplomat in Niger, Robert Fowler, who was grabbed in 2008.

The deputy mayor of a town in the Timbuktu region of northern Mali, confirmed that Belmoktar, leader of an AQIM “katiba”, or cell, had left the al-Qaeda franchise.

The information was confirmed by Oumar Ould Hamaha, an associate of Belmoktar’s, who was reached by telephone in northern Mali.

“It’s true,” said Hamaha. “We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara.”

However, he added that while they have left the North African branch, they remain under the orders of central al-Qaeda.