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Algerian militant known as 'Mr. Marlboro' raked in millions from kidnappings

Belmokhtar Brigade via Reuters

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, identified by the Algerian interior ministry as the leader of a militant Islamic group, is pictured in a screen capture from an undated video distributed by the Bel Mokhtar Brigade obtained by Reuters January 16, 2013.

The one-eyed al-Qaida-linked militant who is reportedly holding Western hostages at an oil field in Algeria is no stranger to kidnappings.

Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, the leader of a militant jihadist band until recently associated with the al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb terror group, has reaped tens of millions in ransom payments, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Mokhtar, 40, is an Algerian who lost his eye fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, NBC sources said. After a falling out with other local al-Qaida leaders, he established his own group in the Sahara.

Mokhtar has since claimed to have made ties to al-Qaida central, formerly led by Osama bin Laden and now headed by Ayman al-Zawahri.

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that Mokhtar had focused on low-level kidnappings, and thanks to Europeans paying large ransom demands, his group flourished financially. One U.S. official said Mokhtar's group was charging "as much as 7 to 9 million dollars a pop," for each hostage ransomed. "That money went directly to purchasing arms," added the official. "The arms market," he said, is "saturated, mainly because of the Libyan arms depots "liberated" by rebels during the Arab Spring.

Mokhtar, known as "Mr. Marlboro" is heavily involved in black market sales of weapons, drugs and cigarettes, U.S. officials say. He married into a leading Tuareg clan. Tuaregs have long controlled smuggling and other black market operations in West Africa.

Some Westerners reported killed in Algeria siege

France, the sources say, had refused ransom requests, but private individuals have paid to get the kidnapped released.

According to an expert's brief compiled for the U.S. Justice Department in connection with a recent New York terrorism case, Mokhtar’s experience in Afghanistan emboldened him and he joined the nascent Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, a large faction growing inside Algeria. Within a few years, he rose to became the commander-in-chief of the "Ninth Zone," a desert area where he established camps and eventually married into a family from the local Tuareg tribesmen. 

The Justice report, which was prepared by terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, who also serves as a consultant for various U.S. law enforcement agencies in terrorism cases, cites an interview with Mauritanian media in which Mokhtar acknowledged forging "connections with al-Qaida.” Mokhtar also disputed reports his group was involved in drug smuggling. Kohlmann also is an NBC News terrorism analyst.

"Smuggling or dealing drugs, near or far, or even to the infidel countries, is among the clearest prohibitions in Allah's Shariah," he said, according to the report. 

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