WASHINGTON -- The attackers who seized an Algerian gas field and took foreigners hostage early Wednesday were commanded by the notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Mauritanian news agency ANI reported as the crisis continued.
Belmokhtar recently left Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate to form a splinter group that he said included foreign militants. French intelligence officials nicknamed him “The Uncatchable” in 2002.
Mauritanian news reports said earlier that an Islamist group had claimed responsibility for the attack and occupation of the Ain Amenas natural gas field in southeastern Algeria, saying they were targeting Algeria because it had cooperated with French operations against Islamists in Mali.
The United States, Britain, Japan, Norway, and Ireland said they believed they had citizens among those held hostage; France was also among the countries whose nationals were seized, according to Algerian state media, which reported that more than 20 foreigners were being held.
U.S. officials have sought Belmokhtar for several years. He helped smuggle insurgents to fight U.S. forces in Iraq, an American official said, and he led the group responsible for the December 2008 kidnapping of Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat and U.N. envoy who was held for 130 days.
Belmokhtar has smuggled contraband and committed kidnappings for ransom for most of his adult life, American officials said.
“Our contacts all characterize Belmokhtar as more of a smuggler than an ideological warrior, more of an opportunist and bandit rather than a jihadi,” said an internal State Department cable in 2007 that later was released by the website WikiLeaks.
U.S. officials say Belmokhtar has been involved in Islamist militancy for nearly two decades. He joined the guerrillas that fought Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and an insurgency against the Algerian government in the 1990s. He later was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in Algeria.
In a 2005 interview, Belmohktar claimed responsibility for establishing links between his Algerian organization and Al Qaeda.
Last month, Belmokhtar reportedly broke away from Al Qaeda to form his own militia and criminal group in Gao, in northern Mali, where militants have seized considerable territory. In a video statement released Dec. 6, he said his new group included foreigners. Witnesses in Mali have reported seeing Arab fighters.
The hostage-taking Wednesday could affect deliberations in Washington on whether to provide additional support for the French military intervention against insurgents in Mali. The Obama administration has not yet decided whether to increase support, in part because it could spark terrorist attacks on Americans living and working in North Africa.ALSO:
Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.