The death of al-Qaeda's Marlboro man

The death of al-Qaeda's Marlboro man
Analysis: Mokhtar Belmokhtar was a big name among Algerian extremists. But his death at the hands of a rival was probably more about money than ideology, says George Joffe.
4 min read
24 April, 2015
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, AKA 'Mr Marlboro', is believed to have died of poisoning

On April 19, 2015, the Algerian newspaper, El Watan, carried news that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the commander of a major extremist group in the Sahara, had been killed.

Although security sources in Algeria were awaiting confirmation of his death, they seemed confident that it was true.

He had, apparently, been poisoned, presumably by a jealous rival for the leadership of his group, Katibat al-Murabitun ("the veiled battalion") or of a splinter group that he had created in 2012, Al-Muaqiun bi-Dam ("those who sign in blood") when he split away from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In the current climate of fear over the growing chaos and violence in North Africa and the emergence of the Islamic State, Belmokhtar's career and death is a salutary reminder that extremism in the region is still a home-grown product, rather than an import from the Middle East.

His career also underlines the fact that the appearances of al-Qaeda in 2006 and IS in 2014 are more a matter of branding than of organisational integration.

His personal history also illustrates the degree to which these movements are as much criminal enterprises as extremist political movements. They are increasingly directed towards capturing illegal revenue streams rather than creating an "Islamic state".

Indeed, Belmokhtar was also a noted smuggler, known by the sobriquet "Mr Marlboro". In other words, it is the failure of the state in North Africa to manage its own security, rather than religious extremism alone, that lies behind the recent explosion in violence there.

A history of violence

Belmokhtar was born in the northern desert settlement of Ghardaia, in the Mzab, the Ibadi region of Algeria, in mid-1972. He seems to have been attracted to violent jihad as a young man and in 1991 travelled to Afghanistan where he trained camps run by al-Qaeda.

He then took part in the civil war there and lost an eye in an explosives accident. Returning to Algeria in 1993, he joined the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, the most radical and violent of the factions fighting the Algerian government, and soon earned a fearsome reputation.

     Belmokhtar was also a well-known smuggler, with the sobriquet "Mr Marlboro".

In 1998, however, he left to join a new organisation, the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat", which had been founded the year before by Hassan Hattab, largely because Belmokhtar's old group was indiscriminate in its violence and had, many feared, been penetrated by the Algerian security services.

Hattab's new group targeted only the security services and was based in Kabylia. Belmokhtar, however, moved into the Tamanrasset region, deep in the Sahara desert, where he became involved in smuggling of cigarettes and drugs, together with kidnappings, particularly of foreigners, to raise funds for his new group.

In 2003, together with another leading member of the group, nicknamed Abderrazak Le Para (he had originally been an army paratrooper), he kidnapped 33 European tourists who were eventually ransomed, reputedly for $10m.

He then moved with his followers into northern Mali as the commander of al-Murabitun, his own group within the movement, and endorsed the decision to affiliate with al-Qaeda in 2006 and become al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib.

Success, however, can bring its own dangers and. The group's paramount commander, Abdelmalek Droukdal, soon began to suspect Belmokhtar of disloyalty.

As a result, by 2012, he left Droukdal's group and joined forces Mujao, a spinter organisation. He was determined to demonstrate his importance and utility, however, and conceived his own plan to attack and seize hostages at the major gas facility at In Amenas in Eastern Algeria.

After thirty-two fighters in his group had been trained in Southern Libya, the attack took place in mid-January 2013.  It was initially spectacularly successful but Algerian security forces soon freed most of the 800 hostages that had been seized.

Thirty-seven foreigners, however, died in the final army assault which killed all but three of the attackers. Their deaths were later to cause a major row between the Algerian government and the home countries of those who had died which eventually led to the restructuring of Algeria's security services under army control.

Enter the nemesis

Belmokhtar seems to have fallen victim to another of the interminable twists and turns in the inter-linkages of extremist groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The Islamic State has been contesting the claims of al-Qaida to control the global violent jihad movement. Groups elsewhere have, as a result, been choosing their preferred branding between these two claimants for global leadership.

Belmokhtar's second-in-command in al-Murabitun, Ahmed Ould Mohammed al-Khayiri, wanted to opt for allegiance to IS but Belmokhtar insisted on al-Qaeda. That insistence seems to have cost him his life.

Yet, in reality, behind these arcane struggles over branding and ideological identity, the reality is that the activities in which the group engaged represented revenue flows; real and substantial assets from which leaders and their followers could benefit.

In the final analysis - and this is typical of marginalised extremist violence - it will have been access to those resources that will have determined the struggle for leadership, much more than doctrinal or ideological purity.