The al Qaeda group responsible for a raid on a natural gas field in eastern Algeria earlier this week has reportedly demanded the release of two well-known, al Qaeda-linked jihadists in exchange for American hostages.
Sheikh Rahman was the spiritual head of the two leading Egyptian jihadist groups, Gamaa Islamiyya (IG) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The latter group was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, who merged his organization into al Qaeda. Rahman has long been revered by al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden, who was influenced by the Blind Sheikh, repeatedly demanded his release.
Rahman was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks.
Aafia Siddiqui was sentenced to prison in the US after grabbing a gun and firing at two Americans in July 2008 in Afghanistan. The Americans were attempting to question Siddiqui about her many nefarious ties. According to American intelligence and law enforcement officials, Siddiqui was a member of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s al Qaeda network and was involved in its plotting against the US after Sept. 11, 2001.
The group responsible for the raid in Algeria and the hostage-swap proposal is headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an infamous al Qaeda commander. In December, a spokesman for Belmokhtar said that he remains loyal to al Qaeda central even though he has broken off from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar’s new group has been calling itself the “Those who Sign with Blood” brigade.
The demand to free Rahman and Siddiqui is a common one, especially from al Qaeda-linked groups, despite the slim to nonexistent chance that either will be released.
In a video released on Sept. 10, 2012, for instance, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri issued the same ultimatum as the one released by Belmokhtar’s group.
“And we, by the grace of Allah, have announced that we will not release the American captive Warren Weinstein, Allah willing, until the Crusaders release our captives including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui,” Zawahiri said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
At a minimum, the latest demand is further evidence that Belmokhtar’s group identifies itself as part of the global jihadist cause. Some accounts have attempted to portray Belmokhtar as a mere criminal despite his longtime service in al Qaeda-affiliated groups dating as far back as the 1990s.
But one of the first statements issued by Belmokhtar’s brigade after the assault in Algeria referenced the ongoing jihad in Syria. According to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, the statement also read: “This invasion comes in the global campaign of fighting the Jews and the Crusaders.”