He goes by so many different names. Khalid Abu al-Abbas, Abu Khaled Bal’ ur, and “Laaouar” or “The One-Eyed” in Arabic. But most know him as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or “MBM” within Pentagon circles, and “Abu Khaled” in Al-Qaeda’s central command. He also is one of the most ruthless and dangerous terrorist leaders in the Maghreb.
Mokhtar was born on June 1st, 1972 in the capital city of Ghardia, Algeria, chief town of the M’zab Oasis nestled in north-central Algeria. It lies along the left bank of the Wadi M’zab in the northern Sahara, and is one of five “walled villages” that make up what is known as the Pentapolis. The city itself is dotted with azure blue rooftops and the sun-bleached bone white buildings likened to the beauty of Mykonos. The prevalent browns and tans of mud walls baked by the sun create what’s left of the city infrastructure. On the highest hill sits the “four-finger” mosque, which looks to be touched ever so slightly with a Moorish influence. The lush date and palm tree groves extend 5 miles along the ever changing river that snakes its way through the city like a varicose vein on the back of a middle aged suburban housewife’s calf. Predominate tribal ties are Sunni by way of the Mozabites, a Muslim Ibadi sect of non-Arabic Muslims including the Berbers.
This beautiful crown of the Wadi M’zab is where Mokhtar began to study, and took a shine to the teachings of Sharia, jihadist schools of thought, and the path of the muhajid. By 1991, MBM was 19 years old and finding himself in Afghanistan training in, according to him, camps of none other than Osama bin Laden. Once Charlie Wilson set up the funds for weapons and equipment, Michael Vickers stepped in with Operation Cyclone and Mokhtar’s training began. Mokhtar had made it, he was finally a mujahedeen fighting the Soviets and the afghan Communist government. This was where the nickname “Laaouar” came about, as Mokhtar lost one of his eyes due to “mishandling” of an explosive during an engagement with government forces.
He returned in 1993 to his native Algeria, where he was married into four influential families in the Wadi M’zab, thus securing a safe haven within the region. Along with marriage, Mokhtar also joined the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), an extremist Islamist organization that wants to boot the Algerian government and replace it with an stricter Islamic state. He fought the long and bloody Algerian Civil War to overthrow the Algerian government.
The GIA was extremely brutal to civilians, sometimes wiping out entire villages. Belmokhtar supposedly employed a hatchet-wielding dwarf named “Mohamed the Dwarf,” who cut the throats of 31 men, women, and children and beheaded them with an axe in public, as part of his effort to impose a strict Islamic government in Algeria. Belmokhtar’s fierce reputation earned him prestige with the GIA, and he quickly rose to the rank of commander. But as the GIA began to splinter and fall apart in the late 1990s, Belmokhtar left for greener pastures, which he found with AQIM and its leader, emir Abu Musah Abdel Wadoud, whose mentor was none other than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
MBM is best known for his, you would say, “aggressive” fund raising techniques, like smuggling stolen cars, diamonds, people, and his personal favorite, cigarettes. This cigarette smuggling enterprise earned him another nickname, “The Marlboro Man.” But what really made him get out of bed in the morning was kidnapping Westerners. Demanding 3 million a head, Belmokhtar’s tactics nabbed a cool estimated 50 million in funding for AQIM in under 10 years, making it one of the most well-funded terror organizations to date.
So impressed was Wadoud that MBM was given command of his own brigade. This very brigade wasted no time proving themselves, and within the year they successfully inflicted utter terror upon the region. MBM and his new brigade were responsible for several exceptionally brutal attacks, especially the December 24th, 2007 attack of five French tourists, leaving four dead and one critically injured. This of course did not sit well with the French government, or the Algerian government, either. So, with pressure from the French in 2004, an Algerian court sentenced him in absentia to lifetime imprisonment for forming “terrorist” groups, robbery, detention, and use of illegal weapons. In 2007, another Algerian court sentenced him to death for forming terrorist groups, carrying out armed attacks, kidnapping foreigners, and importing and trafficking in illegal weapons. In 2008, an Algerian court convicted and sentenced him to death for murdering 13 customs officers.
But, as luck would have it, relations with Mokhtar and AQIM command began to fracture and, as quickly as the admiration came, it was soon replaced with jealousy. Wadoud began to see the power and prestige that MBM was gathering among the younger fighters in the organization. Perceiving this as a threat to his overall leadership, Wadoud shifted more and more command and control over to a rival AQIM commander, Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid. And according to an Associated Press report, Mokhtar received a letter addressed to his AQIM nom de guerre “Abu Khaled,” in which the Shuria Council of AQIM complained that MBM was not “answering his phone” or “not turning in his expense reports”, he was “ignoring command meetings” and occasionally “refused orders.”
Shortly after that letter was sent, Mokhtar took his brigade and went…well, not home per se, just split from the Maghreb branch of Al-Qaeda and founded his own group named “The Masked Brigade,” or “al-Muaqioon Biddam (those that sign in blood) Brigade.” And just as before, this group wasted no time putting itself on the map, and began kidnapping and smuggling. Soon after members of The Masked Brigade attacked the Tiguentourine oil field near Amenas, Algeria taking more than 800 hostages in the early weeks of 2013, stating that the attack was a reprisal for the French military operation named ”Operation Serval” in Mali in December of 2012. Algerian Special Forces gathered and executed a surreptitious infil followed by a dynamic entry, which resulted in the rescue of hundreds of hostages. Regrettably, 39 hostages lost their lives, some executed with a single gunshot to the head by the Brigade. According to post assault body count, Algerian SOF estimated 29 dead Masked Brigade members and detained three. Niger, Africa saw another attack in which the target this time was a French owned uranium mine in the outskirts of Arlit, Niger, and a military base 150 miles away in Agadez. The Masked Brigade has been expanding into the relatively unknown and unwatched northern portion of Niger since May of this year.
Belmokhtar has the luck of a cat when it comes to his death. Multiple reports of Mokhtar’s demise have proven false in the recent months, with MBM popping up in terrorist training videos in North Africa as recently as 9/11/13. Mokhtar Belmokhtar is truly the Arab Teflon Don of the Maghreb. And now JSOC, British Special Reconnaissance Regiment and French SOF have all been tasked to find, fix, and kill/capture Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
With a mere 5Mil USD bounty on his head, what does all this mean for the region and for coalition or unilateral SOF operations within the Maghreb? FOB Niger is your answer and I have no doubt that with all this information, and all the new US military activity in the West African region, that “The One-Eyed” just bought himself Tier 1 targeting on whatever SOF task force targeting deck JSOC and CIA has. The last known location for Mokhtar Belmokhtar was suspected of being in or around the Gao, Algeria region.
(Featured Image Courtesy: The Long War Journal)
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