By DREW HINSHAW in Timbuktu, Mali, SIOBHAN GORMAN and DEVLIN BARRETT in Washington
Western forces armed with drones, jets, laser-guided bombs and state-of-the-art wiretapping technology are engaged in a cat-and-mouse hunt for fundamentalist insurgents who have disappeared into the Sahara, holed up in ancient desert hide-outs.
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Terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, age 40
Tracked by the CIA since the early 1990s after he left training camps in Afghanistan to fight Algeria’s government.
Estimated by U.S. State Department to have raised $50 million from kidnapping tourists, aid workers, miners.
Used his fortune to buy stolen arms after the fall of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
Mastermind of the seizure of the Algerian gas plant in January that left at least 37 dead.
The U.S. is working with France to find the fugitives, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose followers commandeered an Algerian gas plant last month in a kidnap plot that left at least 37 people dead—three Americans among them. For the past decade, the 40-year-old insurgent leader has raised tens of millions of dollars from kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to buy weapons and wage a holy war, U.S. officials said.
French warplanes, before reclaiming Timbuktu last month, fired U.S.-made bombs at hide-outs and the command center of the terrorist group, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which for months had occupied the northern half of Mali. When French soldiers arrived in tanks a week later, they found the blitz to finish off the AQIM’s leadership had instead bombed decoy cars and empty buildings, according to French officials.
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Among the insurgents who escaped the French onslaught, Western authorities say, none is as elusive as Mr. Belmokhtar, a breakaway AQIM commander, whose brigade is named Those Who Sign With Blood.
The U.S. is employing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Joint Special Operations Command in a manhunt that underscores how quickly Washington is eyeing an expansion of its counterterrorism actions in northwestern Africa following the gas-plant attack. Senior U.S. officials are pressing to add Mr. Belmokhtar to a list of U.S. targets for capture or killing.
Since arriving in the country on Jan. 11, French and African soldiers have liberated much of AQIM’s seized empire, a Texas-size stretch of northern Mali. Mr. Belmokhtar and the others have since gone deep into the Adrar des Ifoghas: a mountainous gash of petrified lava slogs and cave-pocked stone outcrops the size of the U.K. that has sheltered bandits for centuries.
“We know for sure that these terrorists have hidden themselves here,” said French President François Hollande during a visit to Mali last week.
In recent days, France has dispatched attack helicopters and fighter jets on bombing runs, so far without result. The U.S. has sent surveillance planes and is considering a drone base in neighboring Niger.