Mokhtar Belmokhtar is thought to be based in Mali.

, Associated Press

'Mr. Marlboro' is kingpin behind kidnappings in Algeria

  • Article by: HARVEY MORRIS
  • New York Times
  • January 17, 2013 - 9:14 PM

LONDON - Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed smuggler-jihadist said to be behind the seizure of hostages at a gas plant in Algeria, has been a notorious kingpin of the Sahara for more than a decade.

As a successful kidnapper, cigarette smuggler -- he is nicknamed "Mr. Marlboro" -- and go-between for Al-Qaida, Belmokhtar has been a wanted man in his native Algeria after returning from training with jihadists in Afghanistan in 1993.

He returned at the height of a decade-long civil war between the Algerian government and Islamist insurgents, acting as a channel between Al-Qaida leaders and local jihadist groups.

Raising money through kidnappings and smuggling, he has been a main supplier of weapons and equipment to insurgent groups. His activities led to him being included in a United Nations blacklist of wanted Al-Qaida associates.

Security agencies in Algeria and beyond might know who "Mr. Marlboro" is. But what is his motive in the operation to seize Western hostages?

In the past, he has staged kidnappings for money, negotiating the freedom of his captives in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom.

This time, the group he leads has linked the operation to events in Mali, where the French military has intervened to prevent an advance by Islamist forces that control the north of the country.

Belmokhtar, 40, is thought to be based in Mali in the rebel-held town of Gao, which has been attacked by French planes.

The hostage-takers have demanded an end to the intervention and a reversal of Algeria's decision to allow the French military to fly over its territory on the way to Mali.

Belmokhtar might also be seeking to reassert his role as a central player in the factionalized Islamist politics of the region after a recent move by the local Al-Qaida affiliate to push him aside. He was removed from a military leadership role in Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in October, according to French broadcaster RFI, after falling out with the movement's leaders.

He then announced the creation of his own brigade as part of a rapprochement with Mujao, a jihadist group that has broken with Al-Qaida.

He is also thought to be close to leaders of Mali's Tuareg tribesmen, possibly through one of his many marriages. The Tuareg's seizure of northern Mali last year was rapidly taken over by jihadists.

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