The Jihadist mastermind of last week’s deadly raid on a natural gas facility in the Sahara Desert may once have worked as an agent for Algeria’s secretive internal security agency (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS), according to current and former U.S. intelligence officers.
The jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar made a name for himself as far back as the 1990s as a successful smuggler earning him the nickname in some circles as “Marlboro Man” for his exploits as a cigarette smuggler. Last year, Belmokhtar broke away from al Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate after being passed over for promotion, and formed a new group called the “Signed in Blood” battalion. On Monday in a video posted to the Internet, he claimed responsibility for the assault on the gas facility.
“There have been persistent questions going back to the 1990s about the ultimate allegiance of many of the emirs of the Algerian jihad movement,” said John Schindler, a former National Security Agency (NSA) counterintelligence officer whose specialty is Algeria's jihadist insurgency. “Algerian defectors have named several emirs as [Algerian security] agents in the past including Belmokhtar.” And, Schindler said, “it was widely believed in U.S. counterintelligence circles that he was an … agent."
While his current status is difficult to assess, Schindler stressed that he didn’t believe Belmokhtar was acting on behalf of the Algerian security agency in the hostage-taking this month. But Schindler did point out that Belmokhtar managed to maneuver for years in Algeria as a smuggler and militant without being caught, and often eluded authorities at the last minute.
A senior U.S. intelligence officer said Belmokhtar was never a formal agent of the DRS but that he worked in a position similar to a confidential informant for a big city police force. "His cooperation with DRS had to do with the particular politics of the Islamist insurgency during its early stages and ceased once their interests no longer aligned," this officer said.
A European intelligence officer, who declined to be named, says the politics of the region has at times been highly complex with “temporary marriages of convenience” and shifting divisions and alliances forming around trafficking deals that cross over ideological lines. “There’s a lot of money to be made from smuggling and elements in the intelligence services in the region have also had their fingers in the pie.”
The CIA and the Algerian embassy in Washington Tuesday declined to comment for this article. Another U.S. intelligence officer, though, told The Daily Beast that North Africa terrorism analysts have long suspected a connection between Belmokhtar and the Algerian DRS, but that definitive proof was hard to come by. “For the most part this is a black box and we don’t have definitive proof,” said the officer, who requested anonymity.
The suspicion about Belmokhtar, however, has been shared in the past between U.S. government agencies, documents show. A 2009 cable disclosed by Wikileaks from the U.S. embassy in Bamako, Mali—the war-torn country that borders Algeria and is currently a safe haven for Belmokhtar’s group—recounts the suspicions of a prominent Tuareg leader named Ag Ghalla about Belmokhtar (his name is spelled Moctar bel Moctar in the cable).
The cable dated March 18, 2009 recounts how Ag Ghalla, who was assigned to a Malian consulate in Tamanrasset, Algeria said he asked Algerian interlocutors on several occasions: “Isn't he working for you?"
The cable, which was sent to the State Department and shared with the CIA and U.S. Africa Command, went on to say “Ag Ghalla professed to be as confused as everyone else regarding the Algerian government's reticence to go after bel Moctar's camps in northern Mali. He said he could only conclude that bel Moctar was receiving support from certain quarters of the Algerian government, and then cited bel Moctar's legendary reputation for last minute escapes and uncanny knack for never being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a specialist on al Qaeda, said he did not know if Belmokhtar had indeed at one point been an Algerian government agent. But he did say, “You have a number of jihadi figures who have approached intelligence agencies about serving as double agents, not because they wanted to betray the jihadi cause but rather because they thought they could play the agencies and get more information about their thinking about the jihadis.” Other intelligence sources remain skeptical also that Belmokhtar would have been betraying the jihadi cause.
Suspicions about Belmokhtar are emerging as hostages and their families from more than a dozen countries recounted to their local media stories of survival and death in the desert. Meanwhile, Canadian authorities were left scrambling in the wake of claims by the Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal that two Canadians were among the 29 militants killed at the remote In Amenas natural gas facility 60 miles from the Libyan border.
The Algerian premier said one of them, who used the Moroccan name of ‘Chedad’, coordinated the attack. He says the Canadians were of Arab descent, prompting terrorism experts to speculate whether either or both were Algerian by birth. Several Al Qaeda-linked Canadian citizens in the past have originated from Algeria.
Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird told Canadian television that the country’s intelligence service is trying to identify “these alleged Canadians.” Other Canadian officials cautioned that the passports found on the dead militants could be forged. However, several hostage survivors have reported that one of their captors spoke with a strong North American accent.
In April 2012, the head of Canada's spy agency said they had tracked 60 Canadians who had traveled to the Gulf, Pakistan, or Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda or similar terrorist groups.
A handful of Canadians of Arab descent have been publicly implicated in Al Qaeda activities or imprisoned for terrorism. They include Faker Ben Abdelazziz Boussora a 49-year-old who was born in Tunis and has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. His nom de guerre is Abu Yusif al-Tunisi. Along with a Montreal companion, Abderraouf Jdey, he was identified on a 2002 videotape found in the Afghanistan home of the late Al Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef, pledging to die as a martyr, or shaheed.
Another is Kuwaiti-born Amro Badr Abou el-Maati, who has been described as “Canada's most wanted terrorist,” and Ahmed Ressam, nicknamed the “Millennium Bomber,” who was born in Algeria in May 1967 and was convicted for attempting to bomb Los Angeles International airport on New Year’s Eve 1999. Ressam is serving a 37-year sentence.
Other Canadians linked to Al Qaeda include the Khadr family. The father, Ahmed Said Khadr, has been alleged to have been a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, and his son Omar pled guilty to killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and conspiring with Al Qaeda. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have alleged “the entire family is affiliated with al Qaeda and has participated in some form or another with these criminal extremist elements.”
Four years ago, a Canadian, Momin Khawaja, was jailed for 10 years for his role in a fertilizer bomb plot in Britain. The 33-year-old made several trips from his home in Ottawa to the U.K. He said he was seeking a wife.
Sources from Belmokhtar's group told London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat that despite losing all the militants in the attack—three were captured alive—they consider the raid “successful by all standards.” In the video Belmokhtar released on Monday (Jan 21), he said the assailants were ready to die. “They pledged before God to achieve victory and restore pride or attain martyrdom and paradise.”