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Terrorism & Security

Algerian hostage crisis heightens as scores are reported dead (+video)

According to Algerian news sources, some 30 Algerians and 15 foreigners have escaped the natural gas field, and another 35 hostages have reportedly died in an airstrike.

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And CNN notes that the attack's purported mastermind, Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, warned a month ago that his group, the Al-Mulathameen Brigade or "The Brigade of the Masked Ones," would soon attack Western interests in the region.

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Europe Editor

Arthur Bright is the Europe Editor at The Christian Science Monitor.  He has worked for the Monitor in various capacities since 2004, including as the Online News Editor and a regular contributor to the Monitor's Terrorism & Security blog.  He is also a licensed Massachusetts attorney.

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Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat who was abducted by Belmoktar's followers in Niger in 2008 - and met the man himself - told CNN, "I suspect they have an intelligence wing and they are constantly looking for ways to grab westerners and embarrass the West and confuse our options. And that's exactly what they are doing."

In a 28-minute video that appeared on jihadist forums last month, Belmoktar warned that Al-Mulathameen would soon act against Western interests in the region.

"This is a promise from us that we will fight you in the midst of your countries and we will attack your interests," he said.

Mr. Belmoktar has a long history of jihad both in the Sahel region and father abroad, and is "renowned for hostage-taking and smuggling anything from cigarettes to refugees," according to CNN. He went to Afghanistan in 1991 to fight against the Russian-supported regime – where he received the injury that earned him the nickname "Belaouar," or "one-eyed" – and later returned to Algeria to fight the government there as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the predecessor to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

But CNN notes that Belmoktar butted heads with other AQIM leaders, eventually prompting him to leave and launch his own militant group.

Abdelmalik Drukdal, the overall leader of AQIM, is said to have demoted Belmoktar late last year from his position as 'Emir of the Sahel.' Belmoktar also feuded with a rival commander – Abou Zeid – one of the most violent and radical figures in AQIM. More than most al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is divided into often competing groups.

Citing regional security officials, Agence France Presse reported Belmoktar had been dismissed for "continued divisive activities, despite several warnings."

Libyan sources tell CNN that Belmokhtar spent several months in Libya in 2011, exploring cooperation with local jihadist groups, and securing weapons supplies.

A Libyan source told CNN that Belmoktar was "seen as a loose canon, running things in his own way" to the detriment of AQIM. "[T]he last thing the [AQIM] leadership wanted was to antagonize the United States just when it was trying to build up strength by stealth, below the radar."

Mr. Fowler, the previously captured Canadian diplomat, described Belmoktar to the Globe and Mail as "not a big man, he’s not a strong man, but he was absolutely the undisputed leader."

“They hate states. It’s all about God’s dominion on Earth. They don’t want a country. They want the world. They want the world to be ruled by God through the strict and uncompromising application of sharia [Islamic law],” Fowler said.

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