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AP Exclusive: Rise of al-Qaida Sahara terrorist

Wednesday - 5/29/2013, 5:04am  ET

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, Algerian firemen carry a coffin containing the body of a person killed during the gas facility hostage situation at the morgue in Ain Amenas, Algeria. In an Oct. 3, 2012 internal al-Qaida letter found by the AP, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar is excoriated for his unwillingness to follow orders and critiqued for his failure to carry out any large attack. His ego bruised, he quit and formed his own group to compete directly with his former employer. Within months, he claimed responsibility for two attacks, in Algeria and Niger, so large that they rivaled the biggest operations undertaken by al-Qaida's wing on the continent. In January, his cell penetrated a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria, kidnapping over 600 people, the largest hostage-crisis in recent memory.(AP Photo/Anis Belghoul, File)

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
Associated Press

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- After years of trying to discipline him, the leaders of al-Qaida's North African branch sent one final letter to their most difficult employee. In page after scathing page, they described how he didn't answer his phone when they called, failed to turn in his expense reports, ignored meetings and refused time and again to carry out orders.

Most of all, they claimed he had failed to carry out a single spectacular operation, despite the resources at his disposal.

The employee, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group. And within months, he carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all: one of the largest hostage-takings in history at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January, and simultaneous bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger just last week.

The al-Qaida letter, found by The Associated Press inside a building formerly occupied by their fighters in Mali, is an intimate window into the ascent of an extremely ambitious terrorist leader, who split off from regional command because he wanted to be directly in touch with al-Qaida central. It's a glimpse into both the inner workings of a highly structured terrorist organization that requires its commanders to file monthly expense reports, and the internal dissent that led to his rise. And it foreshadows a terrorism landscape where charismatic jihadists can carry out attacks directly in al-Qaida's name, regardless of whether they are under its command.

Rudolph Atallah, the former head of counterterrorism for Africa at the Pentagon and one of three experts who authenticated the 10-page letter dated Oct. 3, said it helps explain what happened in Algeria and Niger, both attacks that Belmoktar claimed credit for on jihadist forums.

"He's sending a message directly north to his former bosses in Algeria saying, 'I'm a jihadi. I deserve to be separate from you.' And he's also sending a message to al-Qaida, saying, 'See, those bozos in the north are incompetent. You can talk to me directly.' And in these attacks, he drew a lot of attention to himself," says Atallah, who recently testified before Congress on Belmoktar's tactics.

Born in northern Algeria, the 40-something Belmoktar, who is known in Pentagon circles by his initials MBM, traveled to Afghanistan at the age of 19, according to his online biography. He claims he lost an eye in battle and trained in al-Qaida's camps, forging ties that would allow him two decades later to split off from its regional chapter.

Over the years, there have been numerous reports of Belmoktar being sidelined or expelled by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The letter recovered in Timbuktu, one of thousands of pages of internal documents in Arabic found by the AP earlier this year, shows he stayed loyal to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, until last year, and traces the history of their difficult relationship.

The letter, signed by the group's 14-member Shura Council, or governing body, describes its relationship with Belmoktar as "a bleeding wound," and criticizes his proposal to resign and start his own group.

"Your letter ... contained some amount of backbiting, name-calling and sneering," they write. "We refrained from wading into this battle in the past out of a hope that the crooked could be straightened by the easiest and softest means. ... But the wound continued to bleed, and in fact increasingly bled, until your last letter arrived, ending any hope of stanching the wound and healing it."

They go on to compare their group to a towering mountain before raging storms and pounding waves, and say Belmoktar's plan "threatens to fragment the being of the organization and tear it apart limb by limb."

They then begin enumerating their complaints against Belmoktar in 30 successive bullet points.

"Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone," they add, referring to him by his nom de guerre, Khaled Abu Abbas. "He is only willing to be followed and obeyed."

First and foremost, they quibble over the amount of money raised by the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, the highest-ranking United Nations official in Niger, and his colleague. Belmoktar's men held both for four months, and in a book he later published, Fowler said he did not know if a ransom was paid.

The letter says they referred the case to al-Qaida central to force concessions in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, a plan stymied when Belmoktar struck his own deal for 700,000 euros (about $900,000) for both men. That's far below the $3 million per hostage that European governments were normally paying, according to global intelligence unit Stratfor.

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