Editor’s note: Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin is an online, subscription intelligence news service from the creator of WorldNetDaily.com – a journalist who has been developing sources around the world for the last 25 years.
Negotiations are reportedly under way to free at least some of the 31 European desert tourists who have vanished in the Algerian Sahara over the past two months, reports Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
After weeks of dead-ends in searches, it now appears certain the tourists – 14 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman, a Swede and a Norwegian – have been taken captive by a bandit chieftain, Mokhtar Belmokhtar – described as part Robin Hood and part Osama bin Laden.
Belmokhtar – also known as Belaouer (“the one-eyed”) – operates in a vast desert in southeast Algeria. Although an Islamist volunteer in Afghanistan in his teens, he was for many years regarded as a “romantic” outlaw who robbed but never killed his victims and sometimes helped the poor. In recent months, he is believed to have formed an alliance with an extreme Islamist organization that has links with al-Qaida.
The fate of the missing tourists, who have vanished along with their all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes in the last nine weeks, was for a long time a mystery, which the Algerian authorities appeared reluctant to solve. It was several weeks before the disappearance of several independent groups of trekkers was linked and taken seriously by the Algerian and European governments.
Four German-speaking Swiss trekkers traveling near the Libyan border disappeared in early February. Eleven tourists, traveling by motorbike, vanished Feb. 21. Several other small parties vanished before 10 Austrians were declared missing after failing to show up for their ferry from Tunis.
The Algerian government has operated a virtual news blackout, saying any publicity about alleged hostage-takers may cause them to panic and kill the captives.
The Algerian press said the tourists, operating without guides in one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world, may simply have got lost – in seven separate groups.
The trekkers were navigating by Global Positioning Systems, which establish a precise position on the Earth’s surface by satellite. Algerian newspapers, quoting government officials, said the United States had scrambled GPS systems to confuse the Iraqis before the start of the war.
The German, Austrian and Swiss governments refused to accept the explanation and issued statements that the incidents were “not coincidental but a result of something systematic.” They sent teams of anti-terrorist police and secret service agents to help with – and watch over – the search undertaken by 1,200 Algerian police and army.
The only signs of life from the missing tourists were an aborted mobile phone call from a Swiss trekker and a message, written in German, found in the desert, which said: “We are still alive.” Such was the pessimism among friends and relatives of the missing Germans, several had started to send toothbrushes and hairbrushes to police so their bodies could be identified by their DNA.
For a decade since his return from Afghanistan, Belmokhtar has been involved in drug-smuggling, gun-running and highway robbery in the southeastern corner of Algeria, 1,000 miles from the capital, Algiers. Three years ago, the annual Paris-Dakar car rally was diverted after Belmokhtar threatened to attack the competitors.
In recent months, there have been reports that he has declared himself the regional leader of an extreme Islamist organization, the “Salafist Group for Combat and Prayer” – the same group believed to be involved in a plot to use the nerve gas sarin on the London underground.
The al-Qaida leader, bin Laden, has given a wide berth to most Algerian Islamist groups, regarding them as deeply infiltrated – or even operated – by the military. The Salafist group is, however, regarded by French intelligence services as one of the satellites of the al-Qaida network.
So far, only a pair of beige climbing boots, some empty beer cans and the canvas cover of a Nissan pickup truck have been found in the search for the missing tourists. The items were found, together with maps and a camping lavatory, in a vast uninhabited region of the central Sahara by a group of Italian tourists who passed by three weeks ago.
Since the end of February a 1,200-strong force of Algerian army and police has combed the area where the tourists were last seen, using camel trains, road blocks and helicopters equipped with heat-seeking equipment in the search. Two weeks ago Germany sent a team of specialist officers from its GSG9 anti-terrorist police force to help hunt for the tourists.
One of the Swiss tourists is said to have called relatives on his mobile phone after his disappearance, but was cut off in mid-sentence. German television reported last week that the tourists had left a message in the desert which read: “We are still alive.” However, no details were given about where it was found.