The man who orchestrated the attack on the natural gas facility, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a veteran jihadist with a long-standing relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, other jihadist networks in North Africa and al Qaeda branches elsewhere in the Islamic world. Al Qaeda's North African branch is a loose network of jihadist groups that differ in their goals but will collaborate on certain operations. Belmokhtar often had tenuous relationships with other leaders within al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, particularly Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud), the al Qaeda branch's overall commander and leader in northern Algeria.Belmokhtar's faction of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb enjoyed a great deal of autonomy until al-Wadoud's close ally Yahya Abu al-Hammam was appointed as emir of the al Qaeda sub-branch for the Sahel region in October 2012 and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Belmokhtar's rival, was named his deputy. Around the same time, Belmokhtar — who had been passed over twice for the position of emir of the Sahel — was demoted to leader of the Mulathameen Brigade, or the "Masked Ones," during the al Qaeda branch's reshuffle of its southern leadership structure. Al-Wadoud and other emirs had lost control of Belmokhtar and factions aligned with him and sought to regain power by demoting Belmokhtar. This — along with a dispute over the allocation of the revenues from hostage ransoms, usually negotiated by Belmokhtar — created a split between Belmokhtar and al Qaeda, though it is unclear whether he was forced out or he quit.
In December 2012, Belmokhtar established a new jihadist group called the "Those Who Sign in Blood," which he intended to use to expand operations into countries throughout the Sahel. He probably will use the same means to finance his group that he and his colleagues in al Qaeda used — most notably, arms trafficking, drug and tobacco smuggling and kidnapping Westerners for large ransoms. Belmokhtar said he would recruit militants from across North Africa and the Sahel, though previously he typically recruited from the western portion of the region (primarily Mauritania, Mali and Algeria). The nationalities of the foot soldiers in the attack on the Algerian natural gas facility — including Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians — indicate that Belmokhtar has the ability and finances to recruit foot soldiers from across North Africa. However, the commanders in the operation were Algerian, Nigerian and Mauritanian, indicating that Belmokhtar has not yet recruited commanders from eastern North Africa.
The lack of security in nearby Libya and the presence of al Qaeda militants in Algeria and Mali make the region a breeding ground for militancy, so Belmokhtar likely will be able to find many recruits. Moreover, Belmokhtar appears capable of tapping into regional militant networks and using them to his advantage. For instance, several of the Egyptians who participated in the Jan. 16 kidnapping also allegedly took part in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, according to investigations into the Algeria operation.
The Loss of Key Militant Commanders
When Belmokhtar established "Those Who Sign in Blood," several of his key commanders and lieutenants from his al Qaeda brigade went with him. Three of them, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, Tahar Ben Cheneb and Abu al-Baraa al-Jazairi, were either killed or captured during the Jan. 16 operation. These men had been the orchestrators and commanders that Belmokhtar often sent to carry out complex attacks.
Prior to the Jan. 16 attack in Algeria, Belmokhtar's three most successful operations were his involvement in the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in central Algeria in 2003, an assault by more than 100 men on a Mauritanian military barracks in Lemgheiti in 2005 and the kidnapping of seven Europeans working at a uranium mine in Niger in 2010. Many of those involved in the high-profile 2003 kidnappings are now in jail. Al-Nigeri and Belmokhtar commanded the raid on Lemgheiti in 2005, and Cheneb, al-Nigeri and al-Baraa al-Jazairi took part in the assault in Niger. Their deaths or capture are a large blow to Belmokhtar's operational capability, but it is possible that there are lower-profile, albeit important, commanders that could be used in future operations.
The loss of key leaders during the Algeria operation could mean that Belmokhtar and his brigade will need more time before they can carry out another attack involving so many foreign hostages. Moreover, other large-scale kidnappings at energy facilities, particularly in Algeria, are unlikely in the short term because of the heightened security presence that can be expected at many of these sites — especially high-profile, government-owned facilities.
Although the most recent operation was in Algeria, it is not the only country at risk for militant attacks. Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Morocco, Libya and Nigeria share external conditions conducive to such attacks.
First, porous borders, which are characteristic of many countries in the Sahel, are ideal for allowing the flow of regional and transnational jihadists. Lack of border security becomes even more of an issue when neighboring countries are unstable. For instance, the Algeria attack took place along the vast and largely unsecured border with Libya. Second, a weak security environment, often in conjunction with a weak central government, poses obvious risks. In places like Mali, Libya and Mauritania, a weak central government unable to control and secure its territory makes the country susceptible to a militant presence.
Third, a country's terrain — especially vast deserts, mountains and largely uninhabited areas — can make it ideal for militant corridors, trafficking routes or camps. Finally, a population that is sympathetic to jihad ideology makes it difficult for governments to identify and eradicate militant elements.
Moreover, Belmokhtar's group is not the only militant organization that kidnaps foreigners in the Sahel; such incidents typically occur three to five times each year. Sometimes other militant groups sell their hostages to Belmokhtar, who buys them with the intention of negotiating large ransoms.
Although it may be several months before Belmokhtar and his brigade carry out another operation on the same scale as the Algeria attack, militancy in the region will continue along with kidnapping operations. Militants in the region could also conduct operations against potentially vulnerable targets such clinics, schools, nongovernmental organizations and tourist sites, making the region's security environment even more tenuous.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the location of Lemgheiti. It is in Mauritania.