He was dubbed “The Uncatchable.” The RCMP tried to catch him anyway, determined to prosecute him for kidnapping two Canadian diplomats and holding them for 130 days in the Sahara desert.
The hunt by the RCMP failed – and now their target, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is reported to be the mastermind behind a dramatic Algerian hostage-taking raid that reveals the regional perils attached to the French-led military offensive in Mali.
About 20 heavily armed Islamist radicals killed a Briton and an Algerian at a natural-gas complex in Algeria Wednesday morning. They injured six others and captured dozens of hostages, including ciizens of the U.S., Britain, France, Norway, Ireland and Japan.
The attackers, claiming to be holding a total of seven Americans and 34 other hostages, demanded an immediate halt to the French military operation against Islamist insurgents in neighbouring Mali.
The Algerian army surrounded the complex and, about 1,600 kilometres from the coast, there is no obvious way for the kidnappers to escape in their four-wheel-drive vehicles with their hostages.
No Canadians are believed to be among the hostages. At least one Canadian was employed at the gas field, but his Norwegian employer said he was safe.
There’s no shortage of Canadians doing business in Algeria. In 2011, the country was Canada’s largest African trading partner, led by companies such as SNC Lavalin and Talisman Energy.
The daring raid by the Islamist fighters, who have links to al-Qaeda, showed the risks of the widening war in Mali – a war in which Canada and many other countries are contributing equipment or troops to the French-led offensive against the insurgents, who captured the northern two-thirds of the West African country last April.
A group calling itself Those Who Signed in Blood claimed responsibility for the attack at the gas field near the Libyan border, owned by British company BP, Norwegian company Statoil and an Algerian state company. The hostage-takers are reportedly armed with light and heavy weapons, including mortars and anti-aircraft guns.
The attackers are said to be an affiliate of the Masked Brigade, founded by Mr. Belmokhtar last year after he quit another radical group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has collected tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments for dozens of hostages over the past decade.
Robert Fowler, the veteran Canadian diplomat who was abducted by Mr. Belmokhtar’s militia in 2008, remembers him as the tough and revered leader of the AQIM kidnapping gang: a one-eyed, bearded man with black, curly hair and a scarred face who was deeply committed to a jihad against the West.
He had a commanding presence in a zealous organization that was determined to impose a religious regime over as much territory as possible, Mr. Fowler said in an interview.
“He’s not a big man, he’s not a strong man, but he was absolutely the undisputed leader,” Mr. Fowler said.
“They hate states. It’s all about God’s dominion on Earth. They don’t want a country. They want the world. They want the world to be ruled by God through the strict and uncompromising application of sharia [Islamic law].”
After he and fellow diplomat Louis Guay were released by the kidnappers in April, 2009, Mr. Fowler was repeatedly questioned by RCMP agents, who were trying to build a criminal case against Mr. Belmokhtar by gathering forensic evidence from the former hostages.
But the RCMP investigation had little chance of success. “I don’t think he’s going to be in Kingston Pen,” Mr. Fowler said.
Mr. Belmokhtar, believed to be in his early 40s, is a veteran Algerian-born militant who served in an Afghan training camp during the Soviet occupation. Later, in addition to his kidnapping escapades, he orchestrated a vast smuggling network that generated millions of dollars from the trafficking of drugs, cigarettes and stolen cars across the Sahara. He crossed the border easily between the deserts of northern Mali and Algeria.
Calgary-based Talisman Energy, which has interests in oil fields a few hundred kilometres away from the site of Wednesday’s hostage-taking, has imposed a ban on Algerian travel for its employees.
“As of today, we’ve placed a temporary travel ban on Talisman staff or contractors going into Algeria. But we will continuously review the situation,” spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland said.
In 2008, a dozen SNC Lavalin employees were killed, and another 15 injured, when a car bomb went off near a bus transporting them to a water-treatment plant southeast of Algiers.
In 2009, SNC Lavalin landed an Algerian contract to build an 80,000-person city from scratch. And late last year, a team including Montreal-based Lemay Architects was selected to design a $2.4-billion city near the ancient city of Constantine. The project will likely last a decade, chief creative officer Michel Lauzon said.
Lemay has had an office and several staff members in Algiers for the past couple of years. “Safety in Algeria is not much of an issue,” he said. “I’m not really worried, travelling there. People are very friendly, very open, very agreeable and very hospitable.”
As a board member at First Calgary Petroleum, Darryl Raymaker oversaw dozens of employees based in Algeria’s oil-field city of Hassi Messaoud. “We never really encountered any hostilities whatsoever,” he said.
If anything, while he was working in and around Algiers – between 2000 and 2007 – tourist kidnappings in the west of the country were more of a danger than attacks on oil workers in the east.
“There were al-Qaeda elements there. On the other hand, the government really dealt with them very, very firmly and with great persistence. … There was the odd incident, I would have to say that, but it was not an endemic kind of thing.”