Militants in the Maghreb have for years thrived on state weakness, exploited remote spaces, and generated income through the smuggling trade. The recent history of Maghrebi jihadist militancy is rooted in Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s and early 2000s. But changing ideologies and a new global brand of militancy prompted a shift and the emergence of jihadism ‘without borders’.

In 2007, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat, GSPC), a faction that fought in the civil war, rebranded as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and allied itself with Al Qaeda’s international jihadism. As the impact of the 2011 uprisings reverberated through the region, a distinct Algerian-Tunisian-Libyan jihadist axis emerged, further transforming what was once a largely Algerian movement into a transnational one.

AQIM and affiliated groups can be conceived of as ‘glocal’ , blending international jihadist creed with local grievances and drawing on fighters from across the Maghreb and Sahel. Following the Tunisian and Libyan uprisings, AQIM sought to profit from the resulting security vacuum to forge closer ties with groups in those countries. The porous borders enabled contact between Tunisian and Algerian militants around Mount Chaambi.

The town of In Amenas in Algeria, about 40km from the Tigantourine gas facility. The plant was the target of a 2013 attack led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Astrium, 2013

Over the past decade, AQIM has become the wealthiest jihadist organisation in North Africa. It gained infamy for its ‘hit-and-run’ attacks, smuggling, and multimillion-dollar ransoms. The group used an operational zone system developed during the civil war, whereby an emir and his brigade were assigned responsibility for a portion of Algerian territory and the lands to its south. This enabled the group to stretch out towards the Sahel, with the area’s remoteness helping to generate funds from smuggling and aiding in evasion from the authorities. New technologies such as GPS and satellite phones allowed jihadists and smugglers to co-ordinate their respective activities and bury weapons and supplies in the desert, to be dug up when necessary.

The Sahel branch of AQIM eventually gained enough power to operate autonomously from the northern central branch while still theoretically operating under its command.

‘Mr Marlboro’

The shift towards the vast south and the lure of easy money in the form of kidnappings and smuggling is encapsulated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. With nicknames ranging from ‘Mr Marlboro’ to ‘The One Eye’ and ‘The Uncatchable’, the Algerian embodies jihadism without borders and is one of the most enigmatic figures in the tangled underworld of the Maghreb and Sahel. He is a fixture of jihadist extremism and smuggling, though his commercial ventures seem to belie any deep ideological convictions. This paradox – between criminality and jihadism – is emblematic of the mythology surrounding Belmokhtar.

Belmokhtar returned to Algeria after undergoing training as a 19-year-old at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, where he claims a piece of Russian shrapnel robbed him of an eye. He joined the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe islamique armé, GIA), the most prominent militant group fighting the Algerian state during the civil war’s early years. Later, as a brigade commander of the GSPC, which split from GIA in 1998 over the latter’s ruthless methods, Belmokhtar operated a hybrid network in southern Algeria that was as concerned with smuggling and kidnapping as it was with fighting the state.

In a two-pronged approach to money-making, Belmokhtar is said to have smuggled various goods – mostly cigarettes but also foodstuffs and weapons – and ransomed Western hostages. Although his direct involvement is often called into question, the profits from these activities allowed him to establish a smuggling business in AQIM’s Ninth Zone, a belt of territory through the middle of Algeria, abutting Libya down into Mali and Niger.

Under Abdelmalek Droukdel’s leadership, Belmokhtar headed an AQIM brigade and was directed to acquire arms and funding for the northern units. By 2008, Belmokhtar and AQIM militants had also conducted numerous kidnappings of Western workers and tourists, with ransoms paid out between 2008 and 2012 totalling anywhere between $45m and $150m. Belmokhtar’s nickname could easily be Mr Ransom, given that he is credited with commercialising the kidnapping of foreigners.

Belmokhtar’s second approach to accumulating wealth relied on cigarette smuggling, earning him the moniker Mr Marlboro. The flow of tobacco is a lucrative source of income, with cigarette smuggling in North Africa valued at more than $1bn in 2013 .

About 20 per cent of global terrorism financing is said to come from the illicit trade in cigarettes .

About 20 per cent of global terrorism financing is said to come from the illicit trade in cigarettes . Jihadist-gangster revenues from the trade in contraband cigarettes do not come directly from smuggling, but rather from their imposition of protection fees on smugglers moving the untaxed cigarettes through the Sahara.

A large percentage of cigarettes in the region are counterfeit products from China and Vietnam that reach Africa via ports situated on the Gulf of Guinea. From there, the goods are moved out from various distribution hubs to serve consumers across the region. Authentic brands sourced from the Arabian Peninsula – including Marlboro, Gauloises, Legend, and Gold Seal – are also smuggled across the region and eventually on to destinations in Europe.

Blending ideologically motivated attacks with criminal activity, Belmokhtar’s transformation into a jihadi-gangster was, in part, motivated by a larger strategic transition among militants in the region. The existential shift, in response to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, necessitated a switch from the ideals of establishing an Islamic state in Algeria to that of fighting the ‘far enemy’ across the region, and securing the necessary funds.

The growth of extremism in Algeria and beyond was foreshadowed by the prevalence of Islamic Salvation Front graffiti, such as this example reading 'An Islamic state or jihad'. Pascal Parrot/Corbis

Although Belmokhtar is considered the architect of this lucrative ransoming enterprise, which made AQIM the richest Al Qaeda franchise, he came into conflict with Droukdel, who feared that his subordinate was becoming too powerful. The tension was amplified when Droukdel promoted Abdelhamid Abu Zeid over Belmokhtar to head AQIM’s Saharan region.

After years of chafing against the AQIM leadership, Belmokhtar announced his departure in 2012. He took with him his own brigade, the Masked Men, all while proclaiming continued loyalty to Al Qaeda and its ideology.

Belmokhtar’s group went on to capture the world’s attention in January 2013 with a spectacular attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant near In Amenas, a mere 80km from the Algerian-Libyan border. Carried out by a special commando unit named ‘Those Who Sign in Blood’, 40 hostages were killed in the initial raid and ensuing assault by Algerian special forces.

The attack sheds light on jihadist inter-group dynamics and the broader geopolitical goals that underlie Belmokhtar’s actions. The raid followed France’s military intervention in northern Mali in early 2013, which forced jihadist groups to rethink their strategy. Later that year, Belmokhtar’s Masked Men merged with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a Tuareg jihadist group, to form Al Mourabitoun. At the time, both groups were scrambling to re-organise as a result of the French intervention.

Having recently split from AQIM and seeking to raise his profile, the In Amenas attack demonstrated that Belmokhtar was willing to escalate the fight against the Algerian state in retaliation for its involvement in Mali. Striking at the very heart of Algeria’s economic model – its reliance on hydrocarbons – and at a heavily guarded site, the symbolism of the attack was clear.

Launched from Libya’s south-west, which is strategically located near the confluence of key smuggling routes, the attack demonstrated that the area had become a safe haven for Belmokhtar after the French intervention forced him to flee Mali.

The absence of a strong central state in Libya and an abundance of weapons and fighters not only intensified the manhunt for the elusive jihadist, but also led to repeated calls for international intervention in the country’s south. France redeployed its military forces across the Sahel in 2014 to counter the highly mobile jihadist groups.

In response to these pressures, jihadist groups in the Maghreb were forced to rethink their strategies and alliances to survive in a fluid geopolitical context. In one notable development, Droukdel announced in December 2015 that Al Mourabitoun had joined AQIM, supposedly healing the rift with Belmokhtar.

Fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the most wealthy jihadist group in North Africa, spell out the word 'shehada' using weapons and ammunition, 2013. Voice of America

Ben Guerdane resident Masouda Lafi believes her eldest son, Mohamed, may have been killed while fighting in Syria in April 2012. Anis Mili/Reuters

The regional jihadist landscape continues to shift, too. Across the Maghreb, a struggle between AQIM and Daesh, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, over jihadist groups’ allegiances has burst open, with several groups switching allegiance to Daesh in 2014. This represents a potential shift, but Daesh’s uncompromising stance on matters of governance and doctrine may prevent it from building the alliances AQIM was able to maintain by latching onto local grievances.

Whether out of genuine conviction or expediency in securing safe havens across the Sahara and Sahel – likely a combination of both – Belmokhtar has championed the causes of communities living at both the geographical and political margins. By exploiting local grievances, such as poor job prospects and political exclusion, jihadist groups have managed to sustain themselves while also playing a key role in the rebellion in Mali.

Realising the importance of co-opting local communities in the vast spaces of the Sahel, Belmokhtar successfully integrated into local power structures by allying himself with tribes through the sharing of smuggling and ransom profits, as well as marriage. Tracing his origins to the nomadic Arab Chaamba tribes, his roots helped him capitalise on his affinity to the south and build ties with various ethnic groups in the region.

Despite a historical rivalry between the Chaamba and Tuareg , Belmokhtar established a relationship with the latter, who controlled a large portion of cross-border smuggling routes. Of particular value was their control of an ancient 3,200km salt route, still in use for trading, running from the west coast of Africa, through Timbuktu in Mali, and all the way into Algeria.