Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the head of the jihadist brigade that launched the deadly suicide assault on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, has claimed the attack in al Qaeda’s name.
Belmokhtar, the emir of the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or Those who sign with Blood Brigade, released a video today in which he claimed the attack under al Qaeda’s banner. The video was released to Sahara Media, an Arab-language website that is based in Mauritania. The videotape was recorded on Jan. 17, two days before Algerian forces launched their final assault yesterday to regain control of the gas facility.
“We in al Qaeda announce that we carried out the blessed commando operation,” Belmokhtar said in the video, according to Sahara Media.
Belmokhtar stated that “40 mujahid immigrants and supporters from various Muslim countries, and even from Western countries,” carried out the assault on In Amenas to punish the West for intervening in Mali. His description matches a report that an estimated 40 fighters led by a jihadist special operations commander known as Abdul Rahman al Nigeri carried out the suicide assault [see LWJ report, Nigerien jihadist identified as commander of Algerian hostage operation].
Additionally, several fighters from outside Algeria, including a Frenchman, a Malian, two Tunisians, two Libyans, and three Egyptians, are reported to have been killed during the fighting at the gas facility. An Algerian force launched its final counterattack to retake the facility yesterday; 23 hostages, including several foreigners, are thought to have been killed, along with 32 jihadists from the Those who sign with Blood Brigade, but officials expect the death toll to rise.
The terrorist assault on In Amenas began on Wednesday, just five days after French warplanes struck the jihadist alliance in Mali that is made up of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Several weeks ago, the jihadist alliance began advancing into central and southern Mali after taking control of the north in March 2012.
In the video, Belmokhtar said that his group would negotiate with the West and Algeria providing that France and other countries withdraw from Mali.
“We are ready to negotiate with Western countries and the Algerian regime, provided they end the aggression and bombing of Muslim people especially in the territory Azawad [northern Mali] and respect his choice in arbitration in the land of Sharia in Azawad,” he said.
Belmokhtar reiterated the call for the US to release Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”) and Aafia Siddiqui (“Lady Al Qaeda”). The Blind Sheikh is serving a life sentence in the US for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a subsequent plot against New York City landmarks. Siddiqui is serving an 86-year-long sentence for attempting to kill US personnel in Afghanistan in 2008.
Al Qaeda and allied groups often call for the release of the Blind Sheikh and Siddiqui [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda group demands release of 2 well-known jihadists].
Belmokhtar has been tied to jihadists in North Africa and Central Asia. He waged jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, and fought in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s with the al Qaeda-linked Armed Islamic Group and its successor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which renamed itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007. AQIM is al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa.
Although Belmokhtar split with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in December 2012, he still conducts joint operations with the group. Belmokhtar reports directly to al Qaeda’s central leadership, according to his spokesman. Al Qaeda central tightened its control over AQIM’s hostage operations in late 2010. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations].