Mokhtar Belmokhtar's bloody attacks have brought him worldwide scorn, even from those he sought most to impress within al-Qaeda central.
The Algerian terrorist known as "Laaouar" in September issued a videotape in which he talked about all he had done since splitting from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He tried to depict himself as a jihadi emir, but that did little to bring him any endorsement by the global terror network.
In a speech marking the anniversary of the 2011 terror attacks, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri mentioned all branches of the terrorist network across the world, from AQIM and al-Shabaab to the lone wolves.
He said nothing about Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Since splitting from AQIM, Belmokhtar (aka Khaled Abou El Abass) began acting haphazardly, accumulating failures and errors. Immediately after the split, he founded his "the Signed-in-Blood Battalion".
The new organisation inaugurated its bloody performance with the attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant near In Amenas. Belmokhtar's goal was to carry out an operation that could bring him attention and money, since he had a long history of hostage-taking and ransom negotiations. He anticipated a financial windfall from ransoms for the hundreds of foreign hostages.
The decisive intervention of the Algerian army shattered his dreams. Indeed, half of those killed when the ANP reclaimed the site came from the ranks of the assailants.
The killing machine of Belmokhtar next turned to Niger. The attack on the Arlit uranium mine killed 23 and the attack on the Agadez military school left several Nigerien soldiers dead. Belmokhtar did not collect any money from these operations; the army foiled his plan to take hostages.
Three key elements emerged about the new strategic directions of Laaouar. The first was the evidence of a partnership between the Signed-in-Blood Battalion and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).The two groups merged at the end of August, to create the "Mourabitounes".
The second element of the Laaouar's operations was the participation of terrorists from different nationalities: Sudan, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Western Sahara. This was an indication of the extent of the recruiting network upon which Belmokhtar relies.
The third element, which was revealed by Niger, was that the operations were planned and launched from Libya. This fact confirmed the theory that Belmokhtar had fled northern Mali to escape the military campaign.
In all these operations, the fate of the participating terrorists ended up being death.
They were all young people from different nationalities, who were lured by salafi jihadist elders, sent to join the ranks of Belmokhtar and then exploited.
Instead of their anticipated jihad, they ended up as criminals: taking hostages and requesting ransoms, or protecting convoys of international gangs of drug and weapons smugglers across the desert.
"Belmokhtar succeeded through these operations to attract attention and the lights of the global media, who followed these events and particularly the attack of In Amenas," noted Abdellah Rami, a Moroccan researcher specialised in Islamist groups.
"But the limelight did not seem to convince al-Qaeda's central command, which continues to see him with both caution and apprehension," the analyst added.
Belmokhtar's goal from these operations was to send a message to the central leadership of the organisation that he was able to carry out important operations and deserved a promotion to the post of al-Qaeda emir for North and West Africa, Rami said.
"Al-Qaeda is not a structured organisation subject to a hierarchy with strict regulations, as is the case of the Muslim Brotherhood," the Moroccan expert pointed out. "It is a network of various groups and cells, and sometimes isolated individuals. Positions within the mother organisation are gained based on the individual's performance and not through administrative advancements."
Belmokhtar thinks he has credentials he needs to advance, based on his participation in the Afghan jihad in the early nineties, all the way up to this year and his operation at In Amenas.
In addition, he managed the money gained from hostage ransoms and the protection fees paid by drug smugglers and traffickers of weapons and people, who turned to al-Qaeda to cross the Sahel and Sahara.
His proudest moments are in fact over operations conducted with international criminal gangs, under the cover of religion. According to some reports, even the real reason behind his defection along MUJAO from AQIM was a dispute over money and spoils.
The defection of Belmokhtar dealt a hard blow to AQIM, for it lost with him an essential source of money and weapons.
"I think that the organisation of Abdelmalek Droukdel committed a big mistake when it dismissed Belmokhtar in October 2012 for lacking discipline, breaching leadership rules and failing to comply with orders," political scientist Hasnawi Abdul Latif told Magharebia.
"They did not know that he was seeking to create a rival organisation in the region."
According to Hasnawi, "Droukdel's decision was bureaucratic and did not take into account the fact that Belmokhtar had spent decades in the desert of northern Mali."
"Belmokhtar's big ambition is reflected in the name of the organisation that embraced him, the MUJAO. It implies that West Africa in its entirety is an area targeted by his rule," the academic said. "His ambitions are also reflected in the name he gave to the group under which his battalion merged with MUJAO."
"Al Mourabitoune refers to a state launched from the desert a thousand years ago and expanded to form the first empire in the Muslim West. Back then the Mourabitoune extended their influence to North and West Africa, in addition to Andalusia," he explained.
Mohamed Benhammou, who heads the African Federation for Strategic Studies (FAES) and the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies (CMES), noted that after the military campaign in northern Mali, armed terrorist groups "chose escape over confrontation, and urged their members to disperse in neighbouring countries, especially in the south of Libya, Chad, and Niger".
"Some of them merged even with the local population," he said. "Today, these groups are starting to resurface and come out of their dens, as indicated in the increasing frequency of terrorist operations in the north of Mali since last September."
Benhammou continued, "We are now facing an imminent danger with the reshaping of the ranks of these groups."
"What exacerbates this risk is the apparition of new areas where security is vulnerable, such as Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt."
As to the connections between the groups, Benhammou said, "There are ideological ties, as well as some form of co-ordination and consultation but no organisational links."
"Most groups declared and pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, like Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and the Shabab in Somalia. Belmokhtar did the same thing. There are also some groups that did not declare explicitly their allegiance to al-Qaeda, although they adopted the same thinking and have the same salafi jihadist beliefs," the FAES chief said.
"What distinguishes all these groups is that they are independent in terms of funding, decision making, and organisation. Although they all belong to the network of global terrorism of al-Qaeda, their objectives, operations, and organisation tend to be local in nature."
Benhammou said, "The goal in the short term is to prevent these terrorist groups from conducting operations. We reach that goal by having the countries of the region share intelligence, and by having co-operation between security services and border controls."
"In the long term, eliminating this phenomenon requires a strategy that includes economic, social, religious and security dimensions. We must eliminate the recruiting capabilities of these terrorist groups and dry up their sources of funding, and reduce the social, political and religious deficiencies that feed them."