26 Jan 2013

Mokhtar Belmokhtar – is the media falling for him?

The name of Mokhtar Belmokhtar went global when it was associated with the Algerian hostage crisis at a remote gas plant. But just how much of a true jihadi is he?

Mokhtar Belmokhtar - is the media falling for him?

When “the one-eyed jihadist came to Timbuktu looking for a good hotel”, writes Xan Rice in today’s Financial Times, the hotel’s owner was prepared.

According to Rice, hotelier Abderhamane Alpha Maiga had hidden all the alcohol, and taken the bibles from each room, leaving the accompanying Korans. When the now infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar, arrived and went from room to room, he was satisfied the owner was a good Muslim, kissed the holy book, and told him to stay in Timbuktu.

Since then Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s reputation has gone truly global, after his group took over the remote gas plant in Algeria and left scores dead in one of the biggest Al Qaeda attacks of the decade.

Not since the “Mad Madhi” as Muhammed Ahmed al-Mahdi was termed by the British, overran Gordon in Khartoum in 1884, has a figure emerging from the Sahara so frightened and enthralled the public.

‘Last time I saw Mokhtar he had two eyes, and he was an empty man.’

However Mokhtar has a chequered past as a religiously motivated fighter. “Malboro man” spent years smuggling, kidnapping and extorting money on the fringes of the Sahel, hardly the activities of a holy warrior.

Pride of place in his CV is the jihad in Afghanistan. The fight against the Russians was the foundation stone for the global jihad of this century, and according to nearly all of the press written about him since the attack in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar took part.

‘Crazy, quick tempered, and not very clever’

But that’s not how one of the men central to the jihad remembers it. “I had forgotten about him until I saw him in the media” Mahmoud (not his real name as he spoke on condition of anonymity) tells me.

Mahmoud is an Algerian who ran the “Services Bureau,” with Osama bin Laden in Peshawar, which helped thousands of jihadists from third world countries fight in Afghanistan. Belmokhtar arrived at his office in Peshawar in 1990 “with a completely empty mind”.

Mahmoud was coming to the end of his own involvement, as the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan had for his mind removed the “Jihad” from what had become a bitter and nasty conflict between warlords.

“He came too late for jihad” says Mahmoud. “The impression I had from him was he was crazy, quick tempered, and not very clever. Many of the people who arrived who were his age, I don’t know 23 or 24, were heavy, serious, but he was light. He had come from the South of Algeria and just wanted to fight”.

Mahmoud told him not to return to Algeria, but sometime in the early 90’s he did, joining the GIA in its bloody fight against the government.

“You know” he says almost as an afterthought, “I haven’t thought about him for years.

“He came around the same time as Zarqawi. You know with Zarqawi he disappeared for 10 years and then he is in Iraq, and this guy appears again after 20 years. Last time I saw Mokhtar he had two eyes, and he was an empty man.

“Now all the newspapers and media are falling for him.”

Ben de Pear is Editor of Channel 4 News