In another quote, he calls bin Laden and al-Zawahri "the leaders of the Islamic nation, not the leaders of an organization alone. We love them and we were convinced by their program. ... So it's even more now that we are swords in their hands."

To which AQIM replies with more than a hint of sarcasm: "Very lovely words. ... Do you consider it loyalty to them to revolt against their emirs and threaten to tear apart the organization?"

Belmoktar's defection was a long time in the making, and dates back to his time as a commander of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC. When the Iraq war started in 2003, his ambition created friction between younger Algerian fighters like himself, who wanted to join the global jihad, and an older generation whose only goal was to create an Islamic state in Algeria, according to Islamic scholar Mathieu Guidere, a professor at the University of Toulouse.

The younger faction won, but Belmoktar felt slighted because his contemporary, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was named emir of the GSPC, instead of him.

Soon after, the group petitioned to join al-Qaida. The terror network announced a "blessed union" on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2006.

Both Belmoktar and Droukdel wrote "candidacy letters" to bin Laden asking to be emir, according to Guidere's book on the subject. Again, Droukdel won.

Frustrated, Belmoktar drifted farther south. He set up in the ungoverned dunes of neighboring Mali, took a Malian wife and tapped into the smuggling routes that crisscrossed the Sahara, amassing arms and fiercely loyal fighters who called themselves, "The Masked Brigade."

His fighters killed more than a dozen soldiers at a military garrison in Mauritania in 2005 and gunned down four French tourists there in 2007. On multiple occasions Belmoktar was declared dead, including most recently in March, and each time, he re-emerged to strike again.

The sharpest blow in the council's letter may have been the accusation that, despite this history of terrorism, Belmoktar and his unit had not pulled off any attack worthy of mention in the Sahara.

"Any observer of the armed actions (carried out) in the Sahara will clearly notice the failure of The Masked Brigade to carry out spectacular operations, despite the region's vast possibilities — there are plenty of mujahedeen, funding is available, weapons are widespread and strategic targets are within reach," the letter says. "Your brigade did not achieve a single spectacular operation targeting the crusader alliance."

In December, just weeks after receiving the letter, Belmoktar declared in a recorded message that he was leaving the al-Qaida chapter to form his own group. He baptized it, "Those Who Sign in Blood."

With that name, he announced his global ambition. "Those Who Sign in Blood" was also the name of an Algerian extremist unit that hijacked an Air France flight leaving Algiers in 1994. Though their goal to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower in Paris was thwarted, the unit foreshadowed the terrorist vision that led to the fall of the Twin Towers in New York.

On Jan. 11, French warplanes began bombarding northern Mali, the start of a now 5-month-old offensive to flush out the jihadists, including Belmoktar's brigade. Five days later, suicide bombers took more than 600 hostages in Ain Amenas in far eastern Algeria and killed 37, all but one foreigners, including American, French and British nationals. Belmoktar claimed responsibility in a triumphant recording.

It was no accident that he chose Ain Amenas, Guidere said. The area is in the home province of Abou Zeid, Belmoktar's longtime rival who commanded a different Saharan brigade and was always in step with the Algeria-based emirate.

"It's a punch in the gut," Guidere said. "It's saying, 'You've never been able to do anything even in your native region. Watch me. I'll carry out the biggest hostage operation ever in that very region. ... Ain Amenas is the illustration of his ability to do a quality operation, when he is under no authority other than his own, when he doesn't have to turn in expense reports or answer to anybody."

As if to turn the knife even further, last week Belmoktar also claimed responsibility for a May 23 attack at a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit, Niger. It was in Arlit in 2010 that Abou Zeid carried out his boldest operation and seized seven foreign hostages, including four French nationals who are still in the hands of AQIM.

In an apparent attempt to raise the stakes, Belmoktar's men slipped past a truck entering the mine and detonated explosives inside. More than 100 miles to the south, a different unit of fighters under his command killed 24 soldiers at a military camp, with help from another local al-Qaida off-shoot, called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

Jean-Paul Rouiller, the director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, compared the escalation in attacks to a quarrel between a man and a woman in which each tries to have the last word. "They accused him of not doing something," Rouiller said. "His response is, 'I'll show you what I can do.'"

Belmoktar might have seen a certain justice in the coverage of the last week's attack in Niger in the leading French daily, Le Monde. Among the adjectives used to describe the event: "Spectacular."