By now the name Mokhtar Belmokhtar is familiar to anyone watching security-related events unfold in Saharan Africa. Since a January 16 raid executed by his “Masked Brigade” in Algeria, which led to the deaths of dozens of hostages, the one-eyed smuggler extraordinaire’s picture has been broadcast across TV and computer screens worldwide. As Western policymakers continue to adjust their strategy in the war on terror, it is important to understand Belmokhtar’s accomplishment in its true context: a victory of a thriving jihadist operational network.
As it turns out, the Masked Brigade’s attack was not, as reports originally indicated, a reprisal for French intervention in northern Mali. In fact, Western security officials recently stated that the attack was planned before January 11, when France intervened. This instead was simply intended to be a standard kidnap-and-ransom mission – a fundraiser and terrorist attack rolled into one.
However, northern Mali does play a role in the attack’s execution. The region has become a sanctuary for militants from Nigeria to Somalia who need free range to learn from experienced veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Belmokhtar’s men trained for and planned their attack in northern Mali. They raised funds by ransoming kidnap victims and smuggling drugs, as well as Belmokhtar’s trademark product, Marlboro cigarettes. They also smuggled fighters and weapons, many of which came from the caches of Libya’s former dictator, Moammar Ghaddafi.
Libya was not only the Masked Brigade’s main supplier of weapons, but their launching pad for the attack. It is unlikely that the fighters could have traveled so far through the Algerian desert unnoticed. Algeria recently closed its border with Mali and has killed almost ten militant smugglers in its southern region over the last month. Many believe that Belmokhtar’s men traveled through Niger and rendezvoused with other Libyan militants to execute their mission.
On the Libyan end, the mission was likely coordinated in conjunction with Ansar al-Sharia. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it belongs to the Benghazi organization suspected of killing Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens and several other American diplomats. However, more than one group operates under this title. In Derna, a small city on Libya’s northeastern coast, a different Ansar al-Sharia coordinates the smuggling of weapons and militants to al-Qaeda-linked organizations in Mali, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. Derna is to the world of Jihadist smuggling what Chicago was to the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. If northern Mali has become the capital of the international jihadist operational network, Derna has become its hub.
Belmokhtar is the first to use the confluence of these factors to execute an attack on a Western target, located in a relatively militant-free zone. No one can say he didn’t give warning. Upon leaving al-Qaida in December, Belmokhtar’s stated goal was to create an organization that would operate throughout northern Africa and the Sahel. He made no secret of his designs to expand to Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya.
Now, “The Uncatchable,” as he was nicknamed by French agents, has proven his goal is attainable. Belmokhtar used the jihadist operational network to move militants and weapons, build a financial and logistical base, and carry out operations throughout the region. It is only a matter of time before this network is used by like-minded individuals to move man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), harvested from Libya or elsewhere, to target Western commercial aircraft, as the Somali-based al-Shabaab did when it shot down a Belarusian cargo plane in 2007. It is only a matter of time before this network is used to move anti-ship missiles to the coasts to target trade ships in the Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Guinea. It is only a matter of time until this network leads to more hostage situations, or another Christopher J. Stevens scenario in Africa.
Though the French intervention in northern Mali is necessary to repatriate the region, other measures must be taken to ensure this network’s destruction. Western powers need to aid North African and Sahelian states, such as Algeria, Niger, and Nigeria, in the surveillance of their borders through the use of unmanned aerial drones. They should teach the armed forces of these nations to intercept and detain smugglers and terrorists, and supply them with long-term intelligence training and technologies. In doing so, Africans can root out terror cells before they threaten regional stability.
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