STUTTGART, Germany — 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.
“His ties to al-Qaeda probably were established after he returned to Algeria as a 21-year-old ‘Afghan’ veteran,” according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In subsequent years, he’s been linked to numerous militant organizations, switching allegiances among groups across northern Africa.
Around 2000, “Belmokhtar increasingly engaged in smuggling, earning the popular nickname ‘Mr. Marlboro,’ ” according to the Carnegie report.
“The web of his criminal partnerships grew tighter in the vast area covering eastern Mauritania, northern Mali, and southwestern Algeria,” the Carnegie report said.
He also was involved in the smuggling of drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants.
He was a key player inside al-QaIda in the Islamic Maghreb, an organization that is thought to be deeply involved in the current unrest in Mali.
However, his criminal enterprises were a source of conflict within AQIM leadership, leading to his recent departure from the group, according to a New York Times report Friday.
In the wake of his ouster from AQIM, Belmokhtar launched theSigned-in-Blood Battalion. While a number of his fighters appear to have been killed by Algerian forces during Thursday’s rescue operation at the gas facility, Belmokhtar remains on the loose.