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'Sons of the Sahara' -- just one group in Algerian gas plant attack

By Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank, CNN
updated 8:45 PM EST, Thu January 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Militant group one of many to emerge in Algeria
  • "Sons of the Sahara" leader killed in recent attack
  • Group describes itself as jihadist

(CNN) -- Somewhere in the Sahara, a group of men in camouflage show off their collection of 4x4 vehicles and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. They are members of the 'Movement of the Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice", under the command of Mohamed Lamine Bencheneb.

It was Bencheneb -- an Algerian in his early 50s -- who led the attack on the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria last week. The French magazine Paris Match has published a photograph of him at the site, wearing an explosives vest. Bencheneb was killed, according to Algerian authorities.

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The former math teacher appears to have linked up with a group called "Those Who Sign in Blood," created by jihadist commander Moktar Belmoktar, to target Western interests in the Sahara.

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The nine-minute propaganda video was uploaded to YouTube by a user named "bencheneb" in September 2011 and first reported by the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom. It is rare visual evidence of a group now in the cross hairs of Western intelligence agencies -- but one which already has a history of attacks in Algeria.

According to Aaron Zelin, research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Sons of the Sahara emerged in October 2007. According to French and jihadist sources, he says, the group launched sabotage attacks against gas facilities in eastern Algeria -- in the area of last week's attack. In November 2007, it launched an attack on Djanet airport, much farther south, hitting a military plane with rockets as it prepared to take off,

Zelin says the group later agreed a cease-fire with the Algerian government -- though some members split off and joined al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Bencheneb abandoned the truce in 2011, with his group accusing the government of reneging on cease-fire terms. Some accounts suggest the arrest of several of the group's fighters was also a factor in ending the truce.

The training video is a declaration of war against the Algerian state.

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The commentary says: "The Movement of the Sons of the Sahara is making a new start and is determined not to abandon the armed struggle and not to stop the war against the oppressing regime until the [Algerian] people get their dignity back."

The group describes itself as jihadist -- with the goal of introducing Islamic Sharia law to Algeria.

The video is set in a desert oasis surrounded by steep scarps. It's unclear whether it is in Algeria, southern Libya or elsewhere in the Maghreb.

In a statement released in September last year, a masked man purporting to be Bencheneb launched another broadside against "the Algerian generals" for doing nothing to help liberate an Algerian vice consul who'd been abducted in the Malian town of Gao. The diplomat -- Tahar Touati -- was executed by his captors, another al Qaeda affiliated group that is still strong in northern Mali.

"How can we [Algerians] remain under the control of these generals who have stolen our wealth, humiliated us and deprived us of water and electricity?" he asks.

Sons of the Sahara is just one of many militant groups to have emerged in Algeria in the last 20 years. The first took up arms in 1992, after the Algerian military stepped in to cancel elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.

A subsequent guerrilla war waged by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) -- and its suppression by Algerian security forces -- took an estimated 150,000 lives. A successor group to the GIA became the foundation for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

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In addition, many southern Algerians complain their region has been marginalized by the dominant north.

Whether (and when) Bencheneb saw himself as part of a larger al Qaeda-inspired movement is unclear.

But he was considered close to Belmoktar and Zelin says he is believed to have served on the Shura Council of Belmoktar's group. Zelin adds that in another statement that appeared in March 2012, Bencheneb said his group was headquartered in northern Mali, where Belmoktar is also strongest.

Whether Bencheneb and his group were involved in kidnapping -- which has helped al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb raise tens of millions of dollars -- is also unknown.

Algerian media reported that Sons of the Sahara were involved in abducting three aid workers -- two Spaniards and an Italian -- near the town of Tindouf in southern Algeria in October 2011. Another jihadist group -- the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) -- claimed responsibility for the abductions, and Zelin says it's possible there was some coordination between the two groups.

As an example of how these groups can move freely across the Sahel, the three aid workers were released months later some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) away -- in Gao, a town in northern Mali where Belmoktar is thought to be based. MUJAO said it had received a ransom of $18 million for their release, although other estimates put the figure much lower.

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Bencheneb's fluid connections and the paucity of intelligence about his group are further evidence that North Africa's terrorist firmament is both diverse and fractured, with different motivations and associations inspiring a kaleidoscope of groups from Benghazi to the Algerian desert and northern Nigeria.

Combating these groups will, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged Wednesday, will be a long struggle.

Words echoed Thursday by Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, who told an audience at Howard University: "Realistically, we would all like to see the elimination of al Qaeda and others from northern Mali. Realistically, probably the best you can get is containment and disruption."

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CNN"s Yousuf Basil contributed to this report.

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