The Observer reports: For many years Mokhtar Belmokhtar was little more than a footnote in the intelligence reports analysing the increasingly muscular presence of Islamist groups in Saharan Africa.
The man whose al-Qaida-inspired Signed in Blood Battalion led the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, in which at least 38 people were killed, was considered a relatively unimportant figure in the political ecosystem of the vast region. But Belmokhtar, who fought for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Islamist GIA in the Algerian civil war before becoming a commander in the Mali-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was ambitious.
In 2003 he masterminded the kidnapping of 32 European tourists whom he successfully ransomed. The money gave him the seed capital he needed to develop a sophisticated trading business throughout Saharan Africa, along the ancient 2,000-mile salt route used by the Tuareg tribesmen to transport goods from the continent’s west coast through to Timbuktu in Mali, then on to Niger before arriving in the Algerian south, gateway to the Mediterranean.
But while the Tuareg made their money in trading salt, gold and silk, Belmokhtar, who secured close links with the tribesmen through marriages to the daughters of several of their most prominent families, made a fortune through a different commodity: smuggled cigarettes. Such was the volume of his trade that he earned himself the sobriquet “Mr Marlboro”.
“He was not an important figure in AQIM, he was quite different from al-Qaida and Bin Laden,” said Morten Bøås, a senior research fellow at Oslo University and editor of African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine. “He is generally known as one of the more pragmatic figures, more interested in filling his own pockets than fighting jihad.”
The key role cigarettes play in facilitating terrorism has been inexplicably ignored. But it has become of urgent interest to western intelligence agencies as they seek to check al-Qaida’s diverse factions operating across the Saharan region. [Continue reading…]