He has many monikers.To some he is a one-eyed bandit. He’s also known as Mr. Marlboro, a reference to his years of cigarette smuggling across the border regions of the Sahara Desert.
Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, 40, has been known in counterterrorism circles for years as a key player inside al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but otherwise he has attracted little publicity in the West. That changed this week when his group, the newly formed al-Qaida spinoff known as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, was widely named as the group behind a brazen seizure of hostages at a gas plant in Algeria.
The high profile assault, reportedly a response to the French intervention in neighboring Mali, raises the question: Who is Belmokhtar?
In 2002, Belmokhtar was called “uncatchable” by French intelligence services, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank with a special focus on terrorism issues.
In its 2009 analysis of Belmokhtar, the Jamestown Foundation describes the Algerian as a brutal, streetwise operative focused both on criminal money-making ventures and jihad.
“Belmokhtar has continually eluded government efforts to marginalize him while becoming a gravitational force in the North African arena and at times a key node in al-Qaeda’s international network,” the report stated.
When Belmokhtar was 19 he is believed to have traveled to Afghanistan where he trained with insurgent groups and made initial connections with al-Qaida and other jihadis.