It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Bumping along the sand dunes of Mali’s vast desert, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler sat in the front seat, sandwiched between the captor he dubbed “Omar One” and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Al Qaeda leader who has reportedly taken credit for taking foreign oil workers hostage in Algeria this week.
“Their purpose was, call your wives and get them to make a big fuss. Get them to call their media friends, get them to call their members of parliament and scream and yell so there’s pressure put on the government to make a deal,” Fowler said in an interview this week.
Belmokhtar told him during the drive that the British and French were trying to mount a rescue. Fowler didn’t doubt that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the armed militant group his captors belonged to — could have had that intelligence. “One of their constant refrains was ‘We have people everywhere,’ ” Fowler wrote in his book, A Season in Hell.
In April 2009, after nearly five months of captivity, Fowler and Guay were released thanks to an unspecified deal made with their captors. AQIM is now one of the groups in control of Mali’s vast north.
Fowler admits it has been hard over the past few days to watch the hostage-taking at a gas facility in Algeria — a spillover from Mali’s conflict, with international ripples still being felt. “We often say things like, ‘Gee, I know how they feel.’ But I really do know how they feel,” he said of the hostages.
The number and fate of victims had not been confirmed by Friday night. Reports put the number of hostages killed between 12 and 30, with possibly dozens of foreigners still unaccounted for. The U.S. State Department confirmed on Friday the death of one American, Frederick Buttaccio of Texas, but gave no further details. France also said one of its citizens had been killed.
A Canadian who was among the employees at the facility when the attack was launched on Wednesday is safe, the Canadian Press reported. But there are also reports that a Mauritanian news agency has quoted an unnamed source with the militant group who says the hostage-takers included a Canadian.
France’s military offensive in Mali — which began Jan. 11 with an aerial bombing campaign that used Algeria’s airspace — was the impetus for the mass kidnapping Wednesday morning, the militants stated. But the attack on the compound near Libya’s border was so well-executed it is hard to believe it hadn’t been planned in advance. AQIM is skilled at kidnapping and its lucrative trade has netted the group tens of millions of dollars and the reported release of their imprisoned members.
Trying to determine what lies ahead for the forces fighting in Mali, the Star spoke with those who have studied the inner workings of the group — and there was little consensus, except that AQIM’s presence would have continued to spread if not challenged.
AQIM is just one player among the armed rebels in Mali’s north, but it is considered the most virulent foe, with worrying global aspirations.
In many ways, Belmokhtar’s history typifies how the group has become what it is today, with roots that reach back to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and extend through Algeria’s war in the 1990s and the post-9/11 decade, to the fall of Libya’s regime.
Abdullah Anas remembers meeting a young Belmokhtar in Afghanistan’s Peshawar region in 1991. Anas was the director of the “Services Bureau,” an organization he establish with Osama bin Laden and Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam to support those fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
“He came in with a completely empty mind, someone coming from the street having heard about the jihad in Afghanistan,” he said. “And then he completely disappeared.”
Belmokhtar went on to fight with militants in Algeria, then moved to Mali, where in 2002 he was dubbed “Mr. Marlboro” for his cigarette smuggling business that, along with kidnappings, helped finance his cause.
Anas said he forgot about him until after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011. He saw an article published that November in a Mauritanian newspaper quoted Belmokhtar as saying his organization had acquired a cache of weapons from Libya.
A month later, there was a supposed split within AQIM and Belmokhtar went on to form his own organization — the one that reportedly orchestrated this week’s attack in Algeria.
But divisions within the group could be significant if they open up a chance for dialogue or negotiations — an option Lebovich doesn’t believe AQIM’s hardline leadership, including Belmokhtar, is open to.
Fowler agrees, having studied AQIM from his unfortunate vantage point.
“We ought to assist our African friends in degrading Al Qaeda to the point that they no longer represent a menace the Africans cannot deal with,” he said. “I will never use the words ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ because you don’t do that with insurgencies.”
“We have yet another episode because of our intervention (whereby) extremists can exploit the hostility that has built up in the Islamic world,” she said. “The longer this goes on, the greater the danger.
“Any long-term strategy cannot be solely military but the problem is, it’s Africa and Africa’s the loneliest continent,” she added. “When it comes to basic development issues, we haven’t done enough. This is a much more complicated picture.”