The terrorist attack on a natural gas installation at In Amenas in eastern Algeria may be an isolated act of revenge for the French intervention in Mali -- or an ominous portent of things to come in North Africa, where Islamist militancy is gaining traction fast.
The man claiming responsibility for the operation is a veteran jihadist who is also renowned for hostage-taking and smuggling anything from cigarettes to refugees.
His name is Moktar Belmoktar, an Algerian who lost an eye while fighting in Afghanistan in his teens and has long been a target of French counter-terrorism forces.
Today, he leads a group called Al-Mulathameen Brigade (The Brigade of the Masked Ones), which is associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) In the last few years, he has cultivated allies and established cells far and wide across the region.
Assault on In Amenas
The gas complex where Belmoktar's followers struck at dawn Wednesday is in a region that has seen plenty of jihadist activity in recent years, in part because of the collapse of government authority across the Libyan border, just 50 kilometers (31 miles) from In Amenas.
Counter-terrorism experts differ as to how the attackers - in several pickup trucks - may have reached In Amenas, but there are several roads and tracks across uninhabited desert from Libya. On the other side of the border, a patchwork of militia prevails rather than any government presence.
A spokesman for Al-Mulathameen told Mauritanian news websites that the attack was in retaliation for Algeria permitting French overflights as part of the intervention in Mali. But regional analysts believe it was too sophisticated to have been planned in days.
Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat who was abducted by Belmoktar's followers in Niger in 2008 -- and met the man himself -- told CNN, "I suspect they have an intelligence wing and they are constantly looking for ways to grab westerners and embarrass the West and confuse our options. And that's exactly what they are doing."
In a 28-minute video that appeared on jihadist forums last month, Belmoktar warned that Al-Mulathameen would soon act against Western interests in the region.
"This is a promise from us that we will fight you in the midst of your countries and we will attack your interests," he said.
Announcing the formation of an elite commando unit called "Those Who Sign With Blood," Belmoktar said it would be the shield against the "invading enemy."
Wednesday's attack in Algeria was claimed in the name of that unit, which Belmoktar said would include "the best of our youth and mujahideen, foreign and local supporters."
Counter-terrorism analysts tell CNN the language suggests this group was dispatched to carry out an act of jihad rather than abduct foreigners for ransom.
"This feels much more like attacks staged in the past by other al Qaeda affiliates, rather than another attempt to exchange hostages for ransom, as has often been AQIM's practice," said Andrew Lebovich, a long-time observer of AQIM currently in Senegal.
"Belmokhtar likely wants to show he is still engaged in active operations and he is not moving away from the fighting - especially at a time when other Jihadists are in active combat against French troops in Mali," he said.
But it is also possible that Belmoktar may try to bargain for the release of al Qaeda operatives held in Algerian jails.
In his December message, he said, "To our captive people...it is our promise and our debt as long as we live that we will liberate you, and we sacrifice our lives for you and everything we own to free you."
Three al Qaeda operatives were detained last July by Algerian security services, but it's not known whether they were close to Belmoktar.
Born in 1972, Belmoktar grew up on the edge of the desert in southern Algeria.
He traveled to Afghanistan in 1991 in his late teens to fight its then Communist government. He returned to Algeria as a hardened fighter with a new nickname "Belaouar" -- the "one-eyed" -- after a battlefield injury, and joined forces with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in its brutal campaign against the Algerian regime and civilians deemed to be its supporters.
Belmoktar later claimed he met al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in the Sudan in the mid 1990s.
According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar who has extensively studied AQIM, Belmoktar rose steadily through the ranks to become the GIA commander for the Sahara.
After a popular backlash against the terrorist group in Algeria, Belmoktar switched allegiance to a spin-off group -- the GSPC -- in 2000, and continued to operate in the sub-Saharan region.