The same man who masterminded the recent horror in Algeria last week was visibly disturbed, wrote Fowler. He said it was Belmoktar who intervened, overruling Abou Zeid to free the two, ordering the drivers to take off across the trackless desert.
"If you are kidnapped by Belmoktar you would most likely live — and you could not say the same thing for Abou Zeid: All the hostages killed between 2006 and 2012 were killed by Abou Zeid. You don't want to be in a position of describing him as the 'noble savage.' But I do think his thought process is less distorted by ideology," says Geoff Porter, founder of North Africa Risk Consulting, a political risk firm specializing in the Sahara region, who has tracked Belmoktar for years. "
However, long before this week's attack in Algeria, Belmoktar had also shown brutality. His men attacked a military base in Mauritania in 2005, killing over a dozen soldiers, said Dakar, Senegal-based analyst Andrew Lebovitch. And he's twice been sentenced to death in absentia in Algeria for the killing of customs officials and border guards, according to Abdel Bari Atwan's upcoming book "After Bin Laden."
His trajectory up until last week was nearly identical to that of Abou Zeid. Like Abou Zeid, he joined the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, an Algerian extremist organization which arose in the aftermath of the 1991 election, which was voided by the secular government after an Islamic party won. He then joined the GIA's offshoot, the GSPC, a group that carried out suicide bombings against Algerian government targets. In 2006, when the group became part of al-Qaida, changing its name to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, both Abou Zeid and Belmoktar became the head of individual brigades.
Belmoktar claims he trained in Afghanistan in the 1990s, including in one of Osama Bin Laden's camps. It was there that he reportedly lost an eye, earning him the nickname "Laaouar," Arabic for 'One-eyed.' Research by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation claims Belmoktar became the conduit between the core al-Qaida and AQIM.
But early on, there were signs that Belmoktar was not in step with the gratuitous violence that characterized both the GIA and the GSPC, as well as AQIM. A diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Algiers quotes Algerian sources who say that at different times, Belmoktar denounced both GIA and AQIM tactics because they caused many civilian casualties.
Last December, after rumors of a growing rift with Abou Zeid, Belmoktar announced that he was leaving AQIM and creating his own group, "The Masked Brigade." His close associate, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told the AP that Belmoktar wanted to create a pan-Saharan movement, and the North African chapter was too narrowly focused on countries in the Maghreb, or North Africa.
It came as the United Nations was getting ready to authorize a military intervention to take back Mali's north from Islamic extremists, including Belmoktar's group. When France began airstrikes on Jan. 11, destroying a training camp, several weapons depots and a base known to be used by Belmoktar's men in the northern Malian town of Gao, Hamaha raged that now their jihad would go "global."
It was only a few days later in the tiny town of Ain Amenas in far eastern Algeria that turbaned men claiming allegiance to Belmoktar descended on a natural gas complex, operated in partnership with BP and took hundreds of hostages in the most ambitious terrorist operation the North Africa had ever seen. They forced the hostages to wear explosives. Belmoktar issued a statement saying the dozens of captives would be killed if France didn't halt its military incursion in Mali.
No one will ever know what would have happened if Algeria or other governments agreed to negotiate. Instead, the Algerians sent in helicopters, pounding the compound, and in the bloodbath that ensued, at least 32 militants and 23 captives were killed, according to the Algerian government. It's unclear how many were killed by friendly fire, and how many were executed by Belmoktar's men.