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Letter points to explosive rise of al-Qaida figure

DAKAR, Senegal — After years of trying to discipline him, the leaders of al-Qaida's North African branch sent one final letter to their most difficult employee. In page after scathing page, they described how he didn't answer his phone when they called, failed to turn in his expense reports, ignored meetings, and refused time and again to carry out orders.

Most of all, they claimed he had failed to carry out a single spectacular operation, despite the resources at his disposal.

The employee, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, responded the way some talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group. And within months, he carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all: one of the largest hostage-takings in history at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January, and simultaneous bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger last week.

The letter was found by the Associated Press inside a building formerly occupied by al-Qaida fighters in Mali.

Rudolph Atallah, the former head of counterterrorism for Africa at the Pentagon and one of three experts who authenticated the 10-page letter dated Oct. 3, said it helps explain what happened in Algeria and Niger, both attacks that Belmoktar claimed credit for on jihadist forums.

"He's sending a message directly north to his former bosses in Algeria saying, 'I'm a jihadi. I deserve to be separate from you.' And he's also sending a message to al-Qaida, saying, 'See, those bozos in the north are incompetent. You can talk to me directly.' And in these attacks, he drew a lot of attention to himself," said Atallah, who recently testified before Congress on Belmoktar's tactics.

Born in northern Algeria, the 40-something Belmoktar, who is known in Pentagon circles by his initials MBM, traveled to Afghanistan at the age of 19, according to his online biography. He claims he lost an eye in battle and trained in al-Qaida's camps, forging ties that would allow him two decades later to split off from its regional chapter in North Africa.

Over the years, there have been numerous reports of Belmoktar being sidelined or expelled by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The letter recovered in Timbuktu, one of thousands of pages of internal documents in Arabic found by the AP this year, shows he stayed loyal to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb until last year, and traces the history of their difficult relationship.

The letter, signed by the group's 14-member Shura Council, or governing body, describes its relationship with Belmoktar as "a bleeding wound," and criticizes his proposal to resign and start his own group.

In December, just weeks after receiving the letter, Belmoktar declared in a recorded message that he was leaving the chapter to form his own group. He baptized it, "Those Who Sign in Blood."

Jean-Paul Rouiller, the director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, compared the escalation in terrorist attacks by Belmoktar's group to a quarrel between a man and a woman in which each tries to have the last word. "They accused him of not doing something," Rouiller said. "His response is, 'I'll show you what I can do.' "

Letter points to explosive rise of al-Qaida figure 05/28/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 10:59pm]
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