Wily one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury Mali hotel, shot to global notoriety with a spectacular assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago, but had long been known as "The Uncatchable".
US bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country’s desert hinterland, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last weekend.
Washington has pledged a reward of $5 million (4.7 million euros) on his head, and of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region straddling the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar’s photo that features on the wall of the French army commander’s office at Gao in northern Mali.
“It reminds me that he exists and wants to do me harm,” Colonel Luc Laine told AFP.
Behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south of his homeland, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed, “Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists,” a source in Mali’s intelligence services told AFP on Monday.
In May, he reaffirmed that his group, Al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to Al-Qaeda, denying allegiance paid to the Islamic State by another of the movement’s leaders.
He was born in 1972 in the ancient desert city of Ghardaia, 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, noted for its dates and rugs and fabrics.
IN THE GREY ZONE
But in a rare 2007 interview, he said he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, whom he joined in 1991 when he was barely 19 years old.
It was in Afghanistan that he claims to have lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel and where he had his first contacts with Al-Qaeda, whose ranks he joined, eventually rising to a senior position.
Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, a year after the government sparked civil war by cancelling an election the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.
He joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent campaign of civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages in the process.
Belmokhtar thrived thanks to his intimate knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger. That success was strengthened by a network of tribal alliances that he cemented through marriage
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, now also nicknamed “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, went with them.
Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
These Islamists have spun a tight network across tribal and business lines that stretch across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone, supporting poor communities and protecting all kinds of traffickers.
They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and made millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages
When a Tuareg rebellion opened the way for a jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, Belmokhtar bought weapons in Libya and was twice seen at the side of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the Tuareg head of Ansar Dine jihadists, in Gao and Timbuktu.
That same year, Belmokhtar was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in north Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings.”
With a reputation as a smuggling baron — dealing in contraband cigarettes, stolen cars and even drugs, as well as profiting from illegal immigration networks — Belmokhtar’s commitment to AQIM’s puritanical brand of Islam was questioned by some members of the group.
But in January 2013, months after his destitution for subordination, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood,” led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algiers gas field assault.
It took place a few days after France launched a military operation to help Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.
Then in May 2013, two months after reportedly being killed by Chadian troops in Mali, he claimed deadly attacks against Niger’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger.
Al-Murabitoun, formed in August 2013 when his “Signatories” joined forces with another jihadist group, Mujao, claimed its first deadly attack against westerners in Bamako in March. Five people were killed.
In its claim for the Radisson hotel attack that left at least 19 people dead, the group said: “This blessed operation comes as a response to the assaults of the Crusaders on our people, our sanctities, and our mujahideen brothers in Mali.”