Belmokhtar to surrender, again?
El-Sharq el-Awsat reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, al-Qaida’s infamous emir of the Sahara, is about to enter into a peace treaty with the government, following a well-publicized call for peace by Hassan Hattab, the GSPC’s estranged founder. According to the report, based on “an Algerian security source”, Belmokhtar has moved with two aides to a designated place of “hudna” (ceasefire) in anticipation of his negotiated surrender. Earlier, it says, he had been sheltered by Berabiche (a Moorish tribe, not Touaregs, as the article states) in northern Mali. Mediation allegedly took place through his brother, and now that he’s in place in a designated no-war-zone, he’s supposed to surrender to the Algerian army within days.
If true, that would be a major coup for the Algerians, and a painful blow for AQIM — not just the Saharan wing, but also the northern main branch, since it is supplied with money from down south. Belmokhtar was not only the man to construct AQIM’s semi-independent southern wing, he also established contacts (possibly parallel to those of the main leadership) with al-Qaida central from a very early date. Through the years, he emerged as a major smuggler baron (cigarrettes, guns, cars) with jihadism more or less relegated to a sideshow, but that didn’t lessen the importance of his illicit trade networks financing the rebels up north.
Now, this has been reported wrongly so many times — rumors, psychological warfare, etc — that I’m hesitant to put any confidence at all in it, especially given the source. Actually, I’m going to assume it’s false. However, the constant reports about Belmokhtar negotiating a retreat (they’ve been reappearing for years) does remind one of the similar reports about Hattab, which eventually turned out to be true, suggesting the faulty reports themselves were perhaps part of the negotiations game. These last few years, other commanders have been stealing the spotlight in AQIM’s southern zone, eg. in the recent kidnappings, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that it’s true that he’s more or less retired from active-duty leadership — but from there to reconciling with the state, it’s still a big step. Possibly, whether true, mistaken or deliberately false, it has something to do with the much-talked-about multi-state chase for AQIM/Sahara.