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Conflict

The man behind the Algerian hostage drama

The Mali conflict continues. With a spectacular kidnapping in Algeria, Islamists wanted to stop French military intervention in West Africa. But, the cell intended to achieve even more with their attack.

"The one-eyed man" is the nickname given to Islamist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The Algerian was fighting in Afghanistan against Russian occupying forces when he lost an eye. Now, he is considered one of the most influential Islamic leaders in the Sahara region. He is the alleged mastermind behind the hostage-taking operation at a gas field at "In Amenas" in southeastern Algeria earlier this week.

A road sign of the gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria (Photo: dpa/DW)

Hostages were captured in the Algerian gas field

On Wednesday evening (16.01.2013), the Islamist cell stormed the gas production plant, taking European and US citizens hostage. The commando group "Al-Muwaqiun bi-al Dima" (Those who Sign with Blood) took responsibility for the attack. Belmokhtar founded the group last December after an apparent falling-out with other leaders of "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQMI) and distanced himself from the regional terrorist network. Before the Algerian attack, Belmokhtar had led an AQMI cell in Mali.

Foreseeable escalation

"Some observers believe that Belmokthar is using the attack to show his passionate obedience. For a long time he ranked second or third in the network, but then he was sent to Mali in the second or third place," says Hardy Ostry, head of the Algeria, Tunisia and Libya department at the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation in an interview with DW. Belmokthar's commando actually did call for the French military to end its mission in Mali after the kidnapping.

French army soldiers stand on armoured vehicles as they leave Bamako (Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images/DW)

French armored troops on the road to the north of Mali

That the conflict in the West African country is now spreading to Algeria following French intervention is no surprise to many experts. The Islamist group is upset, among other things, that the Algerian government has given its former colonial occupier fly-over rights for its Mali mission, says Asiem El Difraoui from the Institute for Media and Communication Studies in Berlin. "And now they are trying to show their brutality," El Difraoui adds. Adding to that, Jihadists had hoped to establish a permanent basis in Mali. In neighboring Algeria, the movement has lost its influence – a personal loss for Belmokhtar who had built up the movement in his homeland.

Islamic radicalization

Born in 1972 in the Algerian city of Ghardaia, Belmokthar, at the age of 19, fought alongside Islamists in Afghanistan. In 1993, he returned to his homeland and joined the "Armed Islamic Group" (GIA), which has been fighting against the military regime since 1991.

The bloody conflict was triggered by the first democratic election in Algeria, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of voting by an absolute majority, but was not allowed to form a government. In the years that followed, 200,000 lives were lost. During this time, Belmokhtar quickly became commander of the GIA before moving to the extremist "Salafist group for Preaching and Combat" (GSPC) cell which later emerged as the AQMI in 2007.

A still from a video shows armed Islamists patrolling in the streets of Gao. (Photo: STR/AFP/GettyImages/DW)

Islamists in the streets of Gao in northern Mali

Belmokhtar was the leader of one of the most important al-Qaeda cells and made headlines around the world kidnapping Western tourists. He amassed a fortune, and other AQMI leaders did the same. "They operated under the al Qaeda brand name, and of course, the ideology. But in reality they are not particularly ideological people," says El Difraoui. "They are trying to build a kind of Islamic state. But, they've also made a lot of money through arms smuggling, human trafficking and drug dealing."

Cross border threats

Because this group has such a broad network across the region, similar terrorist attacks, like the one in Algeria, are certainly possible in Mali's neighboring countries. "For example, in Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, but also in southern Tunisia," says El Difraoui, especially because the security situation has deteriorated in the region since the end of Gadhafi regime in Libya.

"The cache of arms was a welcome booty for the militias and other groups active in the region," explains Hardy Ostry. "One of the biggest fears for the government there, is that they won't be able to get the situation under control." The taking of hostages in "In Amenas" and its bloody outcome will only increase those fears.

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