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Tuesday 16 September 2014

'Uncatchable pirate king of the Sahara' led raid on BP facility

Alex Spillius London

Published 17/01/2013 | 05:00

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Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the group believed to be behind the attack on the BP plant

Islamist leaders warned that the French interven-tion in Mali would "open the gates of hell", and the job of fulfilling that dire prediction appears to have fallen to a veteran, one-eyed jihadist-cum-gangster called Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

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The daring raid on the BP facility at In Amenas was carried out in the name of Belmokhtar, who lost his left eye in combat and has been reported dead at least twice, most recently in June.

French intelligence once dubbed him "uncatchable", as he eluded their clutches during the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists.

Believed to be in his early 40s, Belmokhtar has been linked to numerous other hostage takings or negotiations, and in the view of American intelligence is the prime criminal "fixer" in the Saharan region. Usually pictured in a black turban, his involvement in cigarette smuggling – part of a mosaic of criminal activities – was such that he became known locally as "Mr Marlboro".

"He is a pirate king of the Sahara," said Jon Marks, a specialist in the region at Chatham House thinktank. "But like most of these Algerian groups, he mixes criminality with ideology, with the balance on either aspect depending on the circumstances."

If Belmokhtar is behind the BP raid, he's responsible for the most spectacular act the region has seen in two decades of terrorism.

As jihadists in northern Mali faced France's military might, the raid looks like a classic riposte that could not only unnerve a major Western power but prove immensely profitable. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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