Nouakchott — Terror leaders in the Sahara are competing for scarce resources and young recruits.
The recent siege at Algeria's In Amenas gas complex highlights a long-standing rivalry between jihadist leaders in the Sahara.
The terror attack was orchestrated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran militant with a long trail of blood from Afghanistan to his native Algeria. Belmokhtar, also known as Khaled Abou El Abbas or Laaouar, broke away from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) last fall amid incessant leadership disputes and quarrels over smuggling and ransom payments.
Belmokhtar's chief rival for al-Qaeda leadership in the Sahara has long been Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, emir of the Tariq Ibn Ziyad brigade.
Mohamed Mokaddem, an author of several books on al-Qaeda, told AFP that Belmokhtar has never accepted the fact that AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel chose Abou Zeid over him.
"To (Belmokhtar), Abou Zeid is just a vulgar smuggler turned jihadist with no legitimacy. He believes Abou Zeid continued trafficking fuel and cars while fighting in the name of Allah and Afghanistan," Mokaddem said.
Sahel Isselmou Ould Moustapha, a Mauritanian specialist in Islamist movements, agreed with this view on al-Qaeda infighting.
"Belmokhtar considers Abou Zeid an ignoramus, a leader without charisma. He feels mistreated by AQIM because, unlike other jihadist leaders in its history, he comes from southern Algeria, and not the north," Ould Moustapha said.
"But with the hostage seizure at In Amenas, he made a grand strike," he added.
The assault on the Algerian gas plant was an opportunity for Belmokhtar to reassert himself, analysts told Magharebia.
"After the exit of Laaouar from al-Qaeda due to internal problems, he did not find any other path than terrorism," said Sid Ahmed Ould Otafal, a terrorism analyst. "Hence he tried to restore confidence in his character by establishing the 'Signed in Blood' battalion after his previous El Moulethemine battalion became known to be associated with al Qaeda."
"Laaouar proved that the organisation suffers from a failure to keep its strong elements and reflects some sort of internal conflict among its leaders who are interested in gains and fame only," Ould Otafal added.
Analyst Abdul Hamid Ansari said that Belmokhtar was using the Algeria attack to say to his al-Qaeda colleagues that his existence was important in the region and they could not do without him.
Since Laaouar failed and all of his cohorts were killed or captured at In Amenas, the game has become open to all, according to Ansari.
"The only thing that he has succeeded with in the past is to recruit some young people by brainwashing them," he added.
Sid Mohamed Ould Abdel Kader, a Sahel expert and veteran of the 1990s Touareg rebellion, spoke to Magharebia at length about the history of Belmokhtar in northern Mali, his extensive relationship with the population and the approach he used to convince many young people of his jihadist ideology.
The terror leader gave young people loans and lent them vehicles to engage in cigarette and drug smuggling, Ould Abdel Kader said.
"Later on, he would gather them and lecture them on the importance of jihad and convince them to take up arms," he said.
The expert pointed out that some of these young people believed in jihadist ideology, while others needed the money.
The rest found out that they had fallen into a trap but could not pull back.
"If any of the young people considered getting out, Laaouar would kill him," Sidi Mohamed told Magharebia. "I know some of the people he killed."
"Therefore, many young people proceed in this kind of life rather than be executed," he added.