“Had he his hurts before?” Siward asks of his slain son in Macbeth. He wants to know if his son’s wounds proved he was fighting Macbeth’s goons when he died, or whether – if stabbed in the back – he had been running away. Macbeth would have made a pretty good Middle Eastern dictator, obsessed with power, murdering his rivals, oppressing his people under the fatal influence of a spoiled, ruthless wife. And al-Qa’ida, in its battles with its infidel enemies – the Russians, the Americans, Israel, the West and the Arab potentates who do, or did, our bidding – does not run away. Their battle wounds are part of their personalities.
Osama bin Laden boasted to me of the Russian bullet scars burnt into his body in Afghanistan – three in all – and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who wore the Prophet’s cloak in Kandahar, has always rejoiced in the eye he lost to his enemies. And now we have Mokhtar Belmokhtar with another eye lost to God’s enemies.
This Cyclops wears no patch to hide his wound. Was it shot out by the pro-Western “mujahedin” in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal? Or blown from his face when he was “mishandling” explosives during the war, when Belmokhtar and his cronies were still heroes, our equivalent – once, in Ronald Reagan’s eyes – of the Founding Fathers?
Now he hides in – or bestrides, if you believe what you are told – Mali. Al-Qa’ida is back in action, but this Algerian war veteran is an intriguing symbol of the path down which Osama bin Laden’s damaged creation now slouches. For Belmokhtar’s Afghan war record is clouded by his cruel participation in the vicious 1990s conflict with the military regime in his own country – he was born in the Algerian city of Ghardaia 40 years ago – and by the corruption which has embraced so many North African Islamist militias.
When he travelled to Afghanistan, he was only 19; when he fought the equally ruthless pro-government paramilitaries in Algeria, he had learnt that wars do not necessarily end, that victory is achieved through the humiliation of your enemies, rather than military conquest.
But Belmokhtar was a child of his country’s history. Born almost exactly a year after the French colonial power retreated from Algeria, he grew up speaking the language of his country’s former oppressors. His French was perfect, and those few Westerners who met him – usually as his captives – were to recall his fluency. Kalashnikov at his feet, Belmokhtar would ostentatiously read the Koran – the mirror image of Bin Laden – as a leader of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and then, having left its ranks long after its apparent defeat in Algeria, as the chef of al-Muwaqqiun bil Dima, uncomfortably but chillingly translated as “Those Who Sign With Blood”. Those who were to survive the atrocities at the In Amenas gas field last week – and, I suppose, those who did not – were to discover what this meant.