Algeria hostage crisis: 3 questions the feds want answered

This image from video provided by the SITE Intel Group Jan. 17, 2013, purports to show militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar.
AP Photo/SITE Intel Group

As the smoke clears and the bodies are counted after the carnage at a natural gas plant in a remote area of Algeria, important questions are emerging. Who is the group responsible for the attack? How are they linked to al Qaeda? What do we know of the man who ran the operation from afar? Why were two Canadians apparently among the attackers -- one possibly in a leading role -- and what does that mean about the breadth and scope of the threat?

Who did it?

The Islamic extremist group behind the attack, al-Mulathameen Brigade (The Masked Brigade) is not technically al Qaeda, but in reality that is a thin distinction.

Moktar Belmoktar, the group's leader, is a 40-year-old Algerian who left home at the age of 19 to join the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in their war to rout the Russian occupiers who had installed a puppet government.

Returning to Algeria in 1993 Belmoktar joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and became part of the network that used bombs and guns in a bloody civil war aimed at the overthrow of the Algerian government. During one of those battles, Belmoktar was handling explosives that detonated prematurely. He survived but lost an eye.

The GIA was not a standalone terrorist group in Algeria. It was an early part of the pipeline that fed into the al Qaeda network. In 1999, Ahmed Ressam, a GIA member who trained in Afghan camps linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda, crossed into the United States from Canada and was arrested by U.S. Customs officers.

Ressam had a trunk full of explosives that were to be used in suitcase bombs at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Day of the Millennium. As part of this shifting organization, the GIA in Algeria merged with bin Laden's group to become al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - the larger group's north Africa franchise.

Belmoktar became a big cash earner for AQIM, managing human smuggling operations between Algeria and Italy, trafficking counterfeit cigarettes -- which earned him the nickname "Marlboro Man" -- and the biggest-ticket item, kidnapping.

U.S. intelligence estimates suggest AQIM raked in $90 million from the various operations. Belmoktar and an experienced group of tactically proficient kidnappers would grab aid workers from NGO's out of restaurants, from moving cars or as they walked down the street. He would trade them back to their organizations, insurance companies or home countries for ransoms that ran between $2 million to $4 million. His most lucrative operation was the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003. They were freed for a ransom payment reportedly totaling $6.5 million.

What is the link to al Qaeda?

Belmoktar, in some ways, became either the beneficiary or the victim of his own success, depending on which version you believe. Intelligence sources say his independence caused friction within AQIM and with its leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. One of the complaints that al Qaeda's central command in Pakistan had with AQIM was that the tens of millions of dollars in ransom money was not finding its way back to al Qaeda's leadership to finance other operations. Another complaint was AQIM not launching significant terrorist attacks against the West, even with its easy access to French-speaking operators who might be able get inside Paris, or even London or New York.

Some al Qaeda leaders believed that AQIM had morphed from a part of the global jihadist network into a criminal, for-profit operation. It was the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 last year -- where AQIM leaders are believed to have provided some level of support and guidance -- that began to change that equation.

Internally, however, there was still turmoil within AQIM. Part of the friction was driven by the question inside AQIM of who should maintain control over the huge sums of ransom money, and how the millions would be spent. Whether Belmoktar was forced out of AQIM or simply quit is a matter of debate among analysts.

There were reports last year that he had been killed, but soon Belmoktar re-emerged on the intelligence radar screen with his own group, the Masked Brigades, and vowed to continue kidnapping Westerners for ransom. With the assault last week on the Ain Amenas gas complex, the taking of hostages and the firefight that led to the deaths of all but two of the terrorists, Belmoktar emerged as a new, high-profile leader of his own franchise, outside of al Qaeda proper but reading from the same ideological narrative.

In a video released after the failed attack, he claimed responsibility for the operation and said he did it for al Qaeda. In doing so, he put his stamp on the attack, aligned himself with al Qaeda's goals, but marked his operational independence from al Qaeda central.

What is the link, and the threat, to the West?

According to Algerian officials, two Canadians were among the attackers. One of them, according to hostages who were debriefed, seemed to have a command role among the hostage-takers. This has set off alarm bells in Canada and the U.S.

Canada, with its liberal asylum policies, has long been favored by North African refuges seeking a life in the West. It has also been exploited by terrorist organizations, as demonstrated by the 1999 network that supported Ahmed Ressam's Millennium plot on LAX. The Canadian Secret Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the FBI are working feverishly to learn all they can about the two Canadians allegedly involved in the Algeria attack. They want to look at their travels, their communications, their social networks; any clues that might lead to possible terrorist cells or even individual operators who may be plotting attacks for Belmoktar in Canada or the U.S.

Intelligence analysts say the events in Algeria and in Mali demonstrate a new paradigm in the world of terrorist networks. No longer controlled as franchises with fealty to a central command of al Qaeda and allegiance to bin Laden, the groups are more independent of al Qaeda command, but reading from the same playbook in terms of goals and objectives.

As 800 French troops, backed by air strikes, try to retake territory seized by groups like Belmoktar's in northern Mali -- many with loose affiliations to al Qaeda -- the militants have managed to disperse. The French have repeatedly arrived in towns in their northward advance to find the militants have already disappeared.

Before France could send in additional troops to bring their force up to 2,800, Belmoktar's group was able to take the gas field in neighboring Algeria, along with hundreds of hostages to be used as a human wedge - leverage to try and slow down France's advance in northern Mali.

The signal to France is clear: Trying to deny the armed groups a sanctuary in Mali is going to be expensive. France has energy interests in Algeria, Uranium in Niger, gold mines in Mauritania and other interests throughout the region. AQIM and a host of other groups, including Belmoktar's, are clearly capable of launching attacks against many of those key economic targets.

On one hand, the idea of just pushing the heavily armed extremists back from Mali's southern region, to the iconic desert town of Timbuktu and points north, might sound like a goal. But in reality, after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost, the idea of allowing the global jihadist movement to simply swap one failed state for another as its new home base would beg the question: What have the United States and its partners really accomplished in the effort to dismantle the network.

And now, at the center of this story, we see a one-eyed, cigarette dealing kidnapper named Belmoktar who courts the TV airwaves with an independent and hard-to-pin-down agenda.

John Miller is Senior Correspondent for CBS This Morning and a former Deputy Director for Analysis in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

  • John Miller

    John Miller is a senior correspondent for CBS News, with extensive experience in intelligence, law enforcement and journalism, including stints in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.