The State Department says the Africa-based Murabitoun terror group, led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, poses the “greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests” in the Sahel region of Africa, The New York Times reported.
Belmokhtar is described as “adventurous,” “reckless” and with a “penchant for carrying out headline-grabbing attacks against Western interests,” according to the Times.
The notorious Belmokhtar who lost an eye to shrapnel, fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and returned to Algeria in the 1990s where he became a leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
He broke with the al-Qaida affiliate in 2012 to form the Mulathameen Battalion. Over the years, Belmokhtar has been behind the kidnapping of a Canadian diplomat, the attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed 38 civilians, among them three Americans, and other deadly attacks in Mali and Niger.
In August 2013, Belmokhtar merged the Mulathameen Battalion with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa to form Al Murabitoun or “Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade.”
In declaring the merger, the groups said they wanted to unite jihadists from the Nile to the Atlantic “to confront the Zionist campaign against Islam and Muslims,” according to the Guardian.
“Splinters can become even more consequential than their parent organization,” terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman told the Times.
This new Al Murabitoun group “concerns us more than any in the region,” a State Department source told the Times.
Some analyst think Belmokhtar still takes orders from the central al-Qaida leadership despite breaking with its North African branch, according to The Long War Journal.
Belmokhtar’s new faction has been officially designated as a foreign terrorist group by the United States. No decision on targeting Belmokhtar militarily has yet been made by the Obama administration, the Times reported.
Meanwhile, Fox News reported that the reward for Belmokhtar stands at $5 million. His precise whereabouts are not known.
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Belmokhtar’s zone of operation, the Sahel, stretches across the African continent from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Chad and Eritrea in the east and is home to 50 million inhabitants.
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By Elliot Jager