Al Qaeda’s black sheep who quit to be his own boss

Moktar Belmoktar
Moktar Belmoktar

 

Letter traces futile attempts of slighted Algerian jihadi’s handlers to control him and foreshadows a terrorism landscape where charismatic operators make their own rules.

After years of trying to discipline him, the leaders of al-Qaeda’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 to carry out orders.

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

The employee, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, responded the way talented employees with bruised egos do in all corporations: he quit and formed his own 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 last week.

The al-Qaeda letter, found 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-Qaeda central.

The letter, signed by the group’s 14-member Shura Council, describes its relationship with Belmoktar as “a bleeding wound” and criticises his proposal to 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 the crooked could be straightened by the easiest and softest means. But the wound continued to bleed … ending any hope of staunching the wound.”

They say Belmoktar’s plan “threatens to fragment the being of the organisation and tear it apart limb by limb”. They then enumerate their complaints against Belmoktar in 30 bullet points.

“Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone,” they add, using 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 his book Fowler said he did not know if a ransom was paid.

The letter says they referred the case to al-Qaeda central to force concessions in the US-led war in Afghanistan, a plan stymied when Belmoktar struck his own deal for €700,000 ($1.11 million) for both men. That’s far below the US$3 million ($3.7 million) per hostage that European governments were normally paying.

“Rather than walking alongside us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case as he liked,” they write indignantly. “Trading the weightiest case (Canadian diplomats!!) for the most meagre price (€700,000)!!”