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Al-Qaida Letter Reprimands Difficult Employee


On a Wednesday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. You could call it a failing performance review. Recently uncovered correspondence from the North African branch of al-Qaida lays out - in bullet points - the shortcomings of one of its local leaders. In the letter, he is chastised by his bosses for sloppy expense reports, ignoring emails and failing to pull off, quote, "any single spectacular operation."

This document, and many others, were discovered by AP reporter Rukmini Callimachi. The documents turned up in Timbuktu, Mali, in buildings abandoned by Islamist militants. She found them as she was covering the French-led military effort to push al-Qaida out of Mali earlier this year, and she now joins us from Dakar, Senegal. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, the disciplinary letter went to a person whose name, Moktar Belmoktar - which may be familiar to us because he went on to mastermind a couple of spectacular attacks. But tell us about him at the time; about his bosses, and why there were so unhappy with him.

CALLIMACHI: Yes. You know, for years now, Moktar Belmoktar, there've been rumors of him being estranged from the mothership, from the al-Qaida brand in North Africa. Every couple of years, we have to try to chase stories about the idea that he's possibly split. What is interesting about this letter is, it showed that although there were really big problems between him and the al-Qaida network, he didn't actually split off from them until late last year.

And the complaints are long, but the basic summary of it is that they consider him a prima donna employee. They see him as this guy who just does his own thing without listening to anyone, and who doesn't do the basic things that one does in an organization - like showing up to meetings, like answering people's phone calls, like turning in expense reports.

MONTAGNE: Now, we here at NPR have reported - actually, for years - about the bureaucratic nature of al-Qaida, but Belmoktar's case seems to be that of someone who clearly is not an easy person to control.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly, exactly. One of the quotes from the letter that we put into our story - after elucidating all of the various ways in which he's been insubordinate to them, they say to him: Why do the successive emirs of the region only have difficulties with you; you, in particular, every time? Are all of them wrong? And I found it so funny because to me, you know, if you work in a big organization, we've all seen letters, you know, from managers to difficult employees that kind of start with that tone.

MONTAGNE: This story does turn quite dark, though, when Belmoktar declares himself an independent agent, and then goes on to be responsible for many deaths; in particular, in an attack at the BP oil facility in Algeria. So he responded by trying to rise, in their world, as high as he could.

CALLIMACHI: Yes, because one of the complaints they have against him is, they say to him that because he's been so undisciplined, because he fails to follow orders, they accuse him of never having carried out any operations of what they call spectacular dimensions. And I'm sure if you're a terrorist, that must have stung.

And he gets this letter; it's dated Oct. 3rd. He announces last December that he has created his own group, called Those Who Sign in Blood, which he claims is going to be in direct contact with al-Qaida central. And then, in January - just a few weeks later - he carries out the biggest hostage-taking in memory.

He took over 600 people hostage at the In Amenas gas plant. And his fighters then triaged who were foreigners and who weren't; and 37 foreign workers were killed, including Americans, including British citizens, French, Irish, etc.

MONTAGNE: What do you know about where Moktar Belmoktar is now?

CALLIMACHI: We don't know, for sure, where he is. All we know is what security experts say. And the latest thing that we learned after Niger, after the attack that he did last week, is that they believe he's in Southern Libya - this quadrant of sand, really, in an area that's very insecure, and that's completely lawless.

MONTAGNE: Rukmini Callimachi is the West African bureau chief for the Associated Press. We reached her in Dakar, Senegal. Thanks very much.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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