A notorious al Qaeda commander named Mokhtar Belmokhtar has claimed credit for kidnapping more than 40 foreign nationals at a natural gas field in eastern Algeria today, according to multiple press reports.
A Frenchman, a Briton, and an Algerian security guard are reported to have been killed in the initial attack. Seven Americans, five Japanese citizens, and several Europeans are said to be among those who are being held hostage. The precise number of hostages remains murky.
According to Reuters, BP said that armed men still occupy the “facilities at the gas field, which produces 9 billion cubic meters of gas a year (160,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day), more than a tenth of [Algeria’s] overall gas output.”
A spokesman for Belmokhtar’s terrorist organization, the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam (Those who Sign with Blood) Brigade, said the assault and kidnappings were retaliation for the French-led invasion of neighboring Mali.
“Algeria’s participation in the war on the side of France betrays the blood of the Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation,” the spokesman said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group.
In a subsequent statement, also translated by SITE, the group demanded that France end its fighting in Mali. The group said that its “blessed invasion” was retaliation for the French trying to “to break the Islamic ruling system in” Mali, “while the Muslims are moaning under the butcher Bashar al Asad in wounded Syria, in the sight and ear shot of the whole world.”
“This invasion comes in the global campaign of fighting the Jews and the Crusaders,” the statement reads, echoing al Qaeda’s many calls for global jihad.
Belmokhtar, who is also known as Khalid Abu al Abbas, long served as an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander, but had a falling out with the group’s senior leadership. Late last year, he formed his own splinter group, but that group still answers to al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
In an interview with the Associated Press in December, one of Belmokhtar’s confidants confirmed the move and explained his motivation.
“It’s true,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, who has held positions in AQIM, Ansar al Din, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO). Hamaha continued: “It’s so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the ‘Maghreb’ appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso.”
The AP added: “Hamaha said, however, that while he and Belmokhtar have left the North African branch, they remain under the orders of al Qaeda central.”
Belmokhtar was designated an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist by the United Nations in 2003. The UN described him as “a former Algerian soldier with experience in training camps in Afghanistan” and explained that he had belonged to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), as well as its successor, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Belmokhtar has compiled an extensive dossier of illegal activity, according to the UN, including kidnappings, gunrunning, robbery, “forming terrorist groups,” and murder. He also reportedly runs an extensive cigarette smuggling operation.
In March 2008, an Algerian court sentenced Belmokhtar “in absentia to lifetime imprisonment for the murder of 13 custom officers.” In December 2008, he was involved in the kidnapping “of two Canadian diplomats working for the United Nations.” Dozens of other kidnappings also have been attributed to Belmokhtar.