BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Moktar Belmoktar is known abroad as the man who orchestrated the abduction of scores of foreigners last week at a BP-operated plant in the remote, eastern corner of Algeria, in a raid that led to many of their deaths.
In the Sahara at least up until this week he was, ironically, known as the more pragmatic and less brutal of the commanders of an increasingly successful offshoot of al-Qaida. The question now is has he evolved into an international terrorist every bit as violent as his rivals, or did the Algeria operation go very differently than he intended?
Belmoktar, an Algerian in his 40s known in Pentagon circles as "MBM," just split off from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to start his own franchise.
Over the past decade, AQIM has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, including diplomats, aid workers, field doctors and tourists. Although Belmoktar's hostages are forced to endure months of privation and live with the constant threat of execution, those who have dealt directly with him say his cell has never executed a captive, according to hostage negotiators, a courier sent to collect proof-of-life videos, senior diplomats and security experts interviewed for this article.
The notable exception was the 2011 kidnapping of two French nationals from a bar in the capital of Niger, both of whom were killed when the French military tried to rescue them. It's unclear if the two died from friendly fire, or were executed by their captors in a situation that closely mirrors the chain of events in Algeria, where combat helicopters strafed the compound in an effort to liberate the hostages, killing both kidnappers and victims.
Belmoktar prefers to trade his hostages for money, experts have said, and global intelligence unit Stratfor says he can get an estimated $3 million per European captive. The money allowed him to build one of the best-financed cells of al-Qaida. It may explain how he was able to strike out on his own six weeks ago to create "The Masked Brigade," whose inaugural attack was launched inside Algeria.
"MBM is more along the lines of, how do I negotiate and put extra money in my pocket?" says Rudolph Atallah, the former head of counterterrorism for Africa at the Pentagon, who has spent years tracking the terror network in this Sahelian country. "The others are purists."
Belmoktar is a contrast to his more ruthless colleague, Abou Zeid, who beheaded a British national and executed a 78-year-old Frenchman in 2010 in retaliation for a raid attempting to save him that killed six militants.
Up until December of last year, both men were emirs of their own "katiba," or brigade, in AQIM. Though they are both from southern Algeria, they have chosen to embed themselves in northern Mali, in the immense, ungoverned desert which ranges from feather-soft dunes to flat, rocky plains. And both have made tens of millions of dollars by kidnapping French, Canadian, Spanish, Swiss, German, English and Italian nationals.
The contrast between the two is captured in the recently published memoir of Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was kidnapped by Belmoktar in 2008 in Niger, where he had been sent as a United Nations special envoy. Fowler was tied up and shoved into a pickup truck and the blows he suffered as his body was banged against the metal during the multi-day journey to Mali caused a compression fracture in a vertebra.
Fowler's ordeal could have been much worse. He described how on April 21, 2008, the day he was liberated, he was driven to a rendezvous point. The same day, Abou Zeid's troops arrived with two women, one of them on the point of death.
Belmoktar went to inspect the women, and returned to where Fowler was sitting with a "thunderous look on his face," he wrote in his account "A Season in Hell." Belmoktar asked to be passed dysentery pills from the medical kit, and ran back to give them to 77-year-old Marianne Petzold, a retired German teacher, and Swiss national Gabriella Burco Greiner.
When Fowler saw the two "the shock was physical. I recoiled with horror at the sight of those small, troubled white faces, twisted with pain."
One had been bitten by a scorpion, and her arm had ballooned and turned black. She would later spend six weeks in the hospital getting skin grafts to replace the necrotized flesh, he writes in "A Season in Hell." They both suffered from dysentery, and Abou Zeid had refused to give them the medicine that their governments had sent during their negotiation. At the moment that they were supposed to be released, Abou Zeid decided that he was not ready to free them, and an argument ensued between him and Belmoktar.