Is the Algeria Hostage Crisis Really Al-Qaeda?
As is often the case with militant groups operating in the Arabic-speaking world, the one that seized a gas field in eastern Algeria appears to have some links to al-Qaeda. But those links, based on the currently available information, appear sketchy. And the group to which they may be linked, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is not the same as the Afghanistan-and-Pakistan-based “central” al-Qaeda that is better known to Americans.
The militant group is led by a guy named Mokhtar Belmokhtar. We looked at him in an earlier post: he’s 40 (that’s ancient in jihadi terms), has one eye, trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s, is called “The Uncatchable” by French intelligence, and runs criminal enterprises that have included taking hostages for ransom. He currently runs his own group but used to be an officer with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, until he reportedly had a falling out with its leaders.
So here’s the big question: should we think of Belmokhtar’s group as part of al-Qaeda? “Linked” with al-Qaeda? “Associated”? It’s tough to say, in part because the closeness of that association is determined in part by ideology and in part by the personality-driven politics of Islamist militancy.