As the hostage drama in Algeria continues, Channel 4 News looks at the shifting allegiances and blood feuds that make the Sahel region one of the most dangerous in the world.
The 41-year-old Algerian is a veteran of the Islamist uprising against the country’s military rulers. He is said to have lost his left eye while training with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in his late teens.
He has spent the last two decades fighting the Algerian government, initially with the Armed Islamic Group, then with the breakaway Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in the late 1990s.
That group officially changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007.
Belmokhtar has been sentenced to death by the Algerian authorities, hunted by the French for kidnapping tourists, and survived disputes with fellow al-Qaeda commanders and former Tuareg separatist allies.
He was said to have been killed last year when in-fighting broke out among rebel groups in northern Mali, but has claimed responsibility for the raid on the In Amenas facility in a video message.
Belmokhtar is said to have split from AQIM recently, and he claimed responsibility for the In Amenas facility in the name of a new group, the Signed in Blood Battalion.
It is unclear whether he is operating under orders from al-Qaeda or acting alone, and his motivation is still the subject of speculation.
While Belmokhtar claims the strike against the foreign-owned facility is in retaliation for French military intervention in neighbouring Mali last Friday, many regional experts think the raid must have been planned long before the news broke.
In the past Belmokhtar has been implicated in numerous kidnappings, usually targeting citizens of countries known to pay ransom money. While no demands for were made this time, we do not know how the militants were expecting events to unfold.
Wolfram Lacher, a leading expert on the region, has called Belmokhtar a “survivor” and speculated that the attack may have been “more to do with MBM setting up his own group and needing seed capital”.
Many commentators say it is difficult to assess whether militants like Belmokhtar are motivated more by money or ideology. In a report for the Carnegie Endowment think tank last year, Mr Lacher said: “Kidnapping for ransom has developed into a highly lucrative industry that has allowed AQIM to become a significant political and military force in the Sahel and Sahara.”
He added: “The income derived by AQIM, MUJAO, and associated mediators from kidnappings is likely to have totaled between $40m and $65m since 2008, paid mostly by western governments.”
AQIM wants to overthrow the Algerian government and set up an Islamic state. The authority of the organisation is in some doubt, as the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali has largely been carried out by splinter groups using different names, including the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
Various Islamist groups have taken control of much of northern Mali, taking advantage of the Tuareg rebellion and a coup by low-ranking army officers last year.
The other major Islamist faction in Ansar Dine, who like AQIM have sought to impose Sharia law on the territory they control.
Ansar Dine are commanded by the enigmatic Iyad Ag Ghaly, a regional power broker who has worked as a Malian diplomat and helped arrange the release of western hostages before taking a leaing role in the Islamist conquest of northern Mali.
One of the confidential US diplomatic cables revealed by WiliLeaks said Mr Ghaly turned up “like the proverbial bad penny” whenever there was the prospect of making money by negotiating with foreign governments over hostages.
Some commentators have doubted the depth of Ghaly’s piety, pointing out that he only founded Ansar Dine after failing to take over the leadership of the largely secular Tuareg separatist movement, and even alleging a taste for whisky.
Although it is one of the few north African countries to remain relatively unruffled by the events of the Arab Spring, Algeria has an extremely complex and turbulent political history.
A French colony from 1830 to 1962, the country finally won independence after eight years of appalling violence. Coups and social unrest followed, but worse was to come in the early 1990s when a coalition of Islamic parties rallied huge support in the early rounds of Algeria’s first proper democratic elections.
A council of military leaders cancelled the final poll, leading to an violent uprising by the Armed Islamic Group that lasted until 1997.
The current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, won the elections of 1999 and survived the Arab Spring protests in 2010 after lifting the country’s 19-year long state of emergency and announcing limited reforms.
Relations between the Algerian authorities and Islamic militants remain controversial.
Former US intelligence officers, human rights groups and people claiming to be Algerian defectors have all alleged that the security services ran elements of the Armed Islamic Group in the 1990s and carried out atrocities themselves in order to exaggerate the supposed threat from Islamism.
Professor Jeremy Keenan from the School of Oriental and African Studies has suggested that leading insurgents like Ag Ghaly and Belmokhtar have links with Algeria’s secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité. He goes so far as to call AQIM in the region “a predominantly Algerian construct”.
Algeria’s neighbour is locked in a bloody conflict, with 1,400 French troops currently deployed to help the Malian government try to stop the insurgents from taking control of the whole country.
Islamists and secular Tuareg rebels joined forces in spring last year, taking advantage of the power vacuum that followed a military coup against the Malian government in the southern capital Bamako.
The rebels quickly took the key cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, imposing harsh Sharia law on two-thirds of the country and vandalising Sufi Islamic shrines, considered idolatrous by hardline Salafi Muslims.
Much of the fighting was done by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a mainly secular group committed to the establishment of a state for the Tuareg ethnic group.
While Tuareg separatists initially fought alongside the Islamists, splits soon appeared, and the group lost control of the major cities after the battle of Gao in June last year.
The Tuaregs reportedly included a number of fighters who had served in the Libyan army before the revolution that toppled Colonel Gaddafi. Tuareg fighters told French reporters they had brought arms and equipment with them from Libya to launch the insurrection.