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.