The leader of the Muslim terrorist group claiming responsibility for the January 16 attack on the Ain Amenas gas field in Algeria is Belmojtar Mokhtar, who is known by the epithet "Emir of the Desert." He has been at the forefront of major terrorist operations that occurred over the last decade, and leads one of the largest terrorist groups in the North African region of the Maghreb and the Sahel. He has long been affiliated with the Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) organization.
Algerian air forces conducted a raid on the gas field on January 17. There are reports that as many as 35 hostages taken by the terrorists may have been killed, while as many as 20 may have escaped. There are reports that 15 terrorist were killed.
The one-eyed Belmojtar was born on June 1, 1972 in Ghardaia (Algeria), according to information released by Interpol. He has been one of the most active and important terrorists in Africa, who has been on a two-decade career of Islamic militancy, first as a member of Algeria’s Islamic Armed Group (GIA) in the country’s civil war, and as joint founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which then begain making attacks against security forces into countries of the arid Sahel and the southern fringe of the Sahara. The GSPC later became part of the North African wing of al Qaeda, under the name al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar headed one of two AQIM battalions in Algeria’s southern region bordering Mali. At the age of 19, Belmojtar was trained in guerrilla warfare techniques, Islamic jihad and terrorism in various training centers in Afghanistan before the attacks in Algeria of the 1990s.
Years later, Belmojtar managed to become influential in northern Mali, coinciding with the extension of the tentacles of his terrorist band before it became the regional franchise of Osama Bin Laden in the Maghreb and the Sahel. In 2007 he was sentenced to death in absentia by an Algerian court. The French deemed him uncatchable, while U.S. intelligence dubbed him a "logistician" and "fixer."
Belmojtar has been defined as not only a terrorist, but also a drug dealer, a businessman, opportunist, and even leader of a kind of non-governmental organization who has been compared to the mythical Robin Hood. He is said to aid locals in exchange for silence and cooperation. He and his organization have shared some of the spoils of multiple raids and abductions of Algerian businessmen and officials, as well as the profits from smuggling guns, narcotics, and tobacco. Indeed, he is sometimes known by the sobriquet 'Mister Marlboro' or 'The Marlboro Man.'
Belmojtar was among those who organized and carried out one of the first major abduction operations carried out against foreigners. In 2003, between the beginning of February and the end of March, 31 Europeans were captured and released months later. His organization also carried out similar operations but on a smaller scale in 2008 and 2010. He has sealed his relationship with local tribes by marrying the daughters of desert chieftains. The barren and inhospitable northern tier of Mali has become his refuge and, in recent months, his jihadis have conducted armed raid that eventually garnered the intervention of French military forces and thus his retaliation in Algeria. His reach was further lengthened in recent years when his men attacked a military base at Lemgheti in neighboring Mauritania, killing fifteen government soldiers there.