‘Uncatchable’ North African Qaeda chief back in Mali
BAMAKO - A leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has returned to northern Mali as the vast desert zone falls under the control of Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters, security sources said Monday.
Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a known smuggler and jihadist who leads up a branch of AQIM, had been reported to be shopping for weapons in Libya three weeks ago. French intelligence services have dubbed him "the uncatchable".
"Mokhtar Belmoktar, one of AQIM's leaders, is back from Libya and is in northern Mali," a Malian security source said.
Another security source from a neighbouring country speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the return of the man nicknamed 'Belaouar' or the one-eyed, who lost an eye while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Belmokhtar's presence in northern Mali comes as a power vacuum left by a coup d'etat there saw a loose alliance of rebel groups seizing control of the vast desert region.
Tuareg fighters of the Azawad Liberation Movement (MNLA), which is seeking independence, have been fighting alongside the Islamist group Ansar Dine, which wants to impose sharia, or Islamic, law in the country.
The two appeared to have fallen out on Monday as Ansar Dine's leader, a renowned Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly arrived with AQIM fighters and chased the MNLA out of Timbuktu a day after they captured it together from Malian forces.
"We have seen him more and more alongside Iyad Ag Ghaly," the security source from a neighbouring country said of Belmokhtar.
A native of central Algeria, he is a founding member of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which later became known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Belmokhtar heads one of AQIM's two main katibas (battalions), controlling the group's southern area, ruling a large swathe of desert that straddles Algeria, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania where his men are believed to hold several Europeans hostage.
Algerian courts have twice sentenced Belmokhtar to life in prison in absentia, including in 2008 for the assassination of 13 customs officers, but the authorities have never been able to capture him and enforce the sentence.
In January he and his three of his followers were sentenced to death in absentia for several deadly attacks.
In November Belmokhtar told a Mauritanian news website that AQIM had acquired Libyan weapons during fighting that ended in the overthrow and killing of strongman Moamer Gathafi.
In a profile published by the Jamestown Foundation think tank, Belmokhtar is said to be a key supplier of weapons and material in the Sahara region who is known as "Mister Marlboro" for his smuggling activities.
He has strong connections among the Tuareg and is believed to have married wives from several tribes.