Magharebia (Washington DC)

25 January 2013

Algeria Attack Mastermind Targets Maghreb

Nouakchott — The mastermind of the Algerian gas facility attack is well known to Maghreb security officials.

The In Amenas siege that left nearly 40 civilians dead last week is the latest terror operation by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as Khaled Abou El Abbas or Laaouar.

For nearly 20 years, the one-eyed terrorist has left a bloody trail across Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Niger and Mali.

Born in Ghardaia in 1972, Belmokhtar fought in Afghanistan before returning to Algeria in 1993, where he joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). He eventually linked up with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In recent years, Belmokhtar took charge of AQIM's El Moulethemine Brigade. Amid leadership disputes and internal quarrelling over ransom payments, he broke away from AQIM last fall, while still affirming loyalty to the global al-Qaeda network.

In a video released January 17th, Laaouar claimed credit for the Algeria attack. He blamed the siege in part on Algeria's support for the international military intervention in Mali, where Belmokhtar and other al-Qaeda leaders have taken refuge.

Belmokhtar has used his ties across the Sahel-Saharan region to build his operation.

"He is the first to penetrate the social fabric of the Touareg and Arabs of northern Mali and the Sahara in general. He wove relationships with various tribal leaders by virtue of intermarriage and money," explained Sid Ahmed Ould Abdel Kader, a Sahel expert and veteran of the 1990s Touareg rebellion.

"Laaouar was married in Azawad and local brokers managed his money," he said.

"The Libyan revolution also contributed to his rise by weapons and new recruits available," analyst Abdul Hamid Ansari pointed out.

The transnational nature of the terrorist's activity highlights the need for Maghreb and Sahel states to co-operate on security, experts say.

"Such co-operation could provide security for their people and protect their borders from the threat of terrorism," Mauritanian analyst Bechir Ould Banah told Magharebia.

He added, "If co-operation had taken place to the required extent, the terrorist Laaouar and his group would not have been able to infiltrate and threaten the interests of the region for over a decade."

"All countries of the Maghreb should go beyond the narrow view of borders when it comes to security and the war of terror," the analyst concluded.

Analyst Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed Ahmed agreed with the need for a concerted approach to security.

"The number one reason that Laaouar can pose a threat is the lack of security co-ordination between the countries of the Maghreb, due to political differences lurking beneath the surface," he said.

After Belmokhtar separated from AQIM and created his own brigade, he was able to expand his terrain, security expert and strategic analyst Hamdi Ould Dah noted.

Because of the new terror map, a pan-Maghreb approach is needed, Ould Dah said, adding that this would require "a lot of co-ordination among Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and, to some extent, Mauritania".

"This is true if we don't want to see the phenomenon of Laaouar repeated in all the countries of the Maghreb," he warned.

"Obviously, what is needed from these countries is more caution, more intelligence and security co-operation," Touareg columnist Intagrist El Ansari told Magharebia.

The Touareg added, however, that "all these measures would only be effective if these countries moved beyond their political differences".

"They have a common and dangerous enemy in sleeper cells," El Ansari said.

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