On the northern edge of Timbuktu, the ancient mud buildings disappear and there is nothing but endless desert, stretching for nearly 1,000 kilometres to the border of Algeria and beyond.
This forbidding landscape, populated only by a few bands of nomads and smugglers, is the stronghold of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the elusive commander of the terrorist cell that kidnapped two Canadian diplomats and held them hostage in the Sahara for more than four months.
The 37-year-old Algerian-born radical, trained in Afghanistan and still closely linked with al-Qaeda, has a fearsome reputation in the Algerian media. His legend is fuelled by nicknames such as "The Uncatchable" and "The Emir of the Masked Battalion."
A more accurate portrait would begin with another nickname, given to him because of his lucrative cigarette-smuggling activities: "Mr. Marlboro."
His true value to the Sahara terrorists is his ability to deliver money and weapons to his allies in Algeria and Mauritania, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Rather than leading his men on dangerous missions or in battle, he prefers to lead from behind, relying on support networks in northern Mali that evolved from his trafficking of drugs, stolen cars, cigarettes and hostages.
By marrying at least four wives from the desert communities of northern Mali, including the famed blue-robed Tuareg nomads, Mr. Belmokhtar has entrenched himself in the Sahara region, giving him the protection he needs to survive.
"Unlike some of the other AQIM leaders, literally through marriage he has found his way into the social fabric of Mali and Mauritania," said Peter Pham, a U.S.-based expert on terrorism in Africa.
Crucially, Mr. Belmokhtar is believed to have forged close links with senior government officials in northern Mali, allowing him to operate freely in the Sahara in exchange for refraining from attacks on Malian targets. The arrangement created a safe haven that has proven useful to his allies in their kidnap-for-ransom operations over the past six years.
When Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were kidnapped in Niger last December, they were promptly whisked across the border to Mali, where the hostage-takers clearly felt much safer. Similarly, two Austrian tourists kidnapped in Tunisia were taken to Mali and held there until their release. In both cases, Mr. Belmokhtar was the key figure in negotiating the final ransom. The revenue from the kidnappings, believed to be many millions of dollars, added to the financial wealth of "Mr. Marlboro."
Among the people of the Sahara, Mr. Belmokhtar is known more as a trader than a terrorist - someone with whom they can do business. "He is not a bad man," said Baba Ould Sheik, an Arab leader from northern Mali who negotiated with Mr. Belmokhtar to obtain the release of the Canadians. "He's simple. He's not nasty. It's possible to talk to him."
Canadian taxpayers have spent millions in a clandestine operation initially aimed at freeing Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay from Mr. Belmokhtar, and which is now focused on bringing him to justice. Dozens of federal diplomats, spies and police travelled to West Africa last spring in hopes of rescuing the two Canadians, who were released in April in exchange for four AQIM members imprisoned in Mali. The mission continues today, with the RCMP still hoping to lay charges against Mr. Belmokhtar and his accomplices.
Born in central Algeria in 1972, Mr. Belmokhtar was a teenager when he became obsessed with the Islamic militants who were fighting against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. By 1991, at the age of 19, he was travelling to Afghanistan to train with the Islamic fighters. He says he attended a notorious al-Qaeda training camp in Jalalabad and fought in battles across Afghanistan.
Returning to Algeria in 1993, he joined the Islamic extremists who were battling Algeria's military regime. He became the leader of the "southern zone" of the insurgency, obtaining weapons and supplies through smuggling networks in the Sahara, although he also occasionally led attacks against Algerian and Mauritanian security forces.
Mr. Belmokhtar, also known as "The One-Eyed" because he is blind in one eye, was a key intermediary between the Algerian radicals and the leaders of al-Qaeda. By 2006, his group had merged with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, tapping into the global Islamist ideology.
His trafficking activities, meanwhile, remained a major source of arms and equipment for the Algerian terrorists. "His ability to supply jihadi elements in northern Algeria reliably has been critical to the ability for these groups to sustain their activities," wrote Andrew Black, a U.S.-based risk management consultant, in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation.
Ten months after the kidnapping of Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay, there is no sign that the RCMP has moved closer to its goal of prosecuting Mr. Belmokhtar. Instead, there are persistent reports from Algiers that the Algerian authorities are giving him a new option: an amnesty agreement that might put him beyond the reach of Canadian prosecution forever. "If it's up to him, he might accept the amnesty," Mr. Ould Sheik said.