With the fall of the Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya in 2011, Belmoktar's position strengthened significantly, because it triggered the takeover of northern Mali by Tuareg separatists and jihadists, creating a larger haven for his fighting group.
Belmoktar traveled to Libya, making contacts with Libyan militia and obtaining weapons from Gadhafi's stockpile for his group, according to regional security sources.
In contrast to Belmoktar, by 2012, Droukdel was becoming an increasingly marginalized figure in the global jihadist movement. Security operations by the Algerian military after the group's suicide bombing campaign significantly weakened the group and isolated it in he mountains east of Algiers.
In an effort to reassert control, Droukdel sent several envoys to northern Mali to remove him from the AQIM leadership altogether, according to Benotman. He told CNN that according to his sources, the envoys visited jihadist encampments in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, where they read out a letter from Droukdel making the announcement public.
Benotman told CNN that one of the triggers may have been annoyance with Belmoktar's unauthorized scouting and networking missions into Libya. According to regional security sources, another factor may have been that Belmoktar was planning attacks against Western interests without authorization.
A competition for Zawahiri's approval
Belmoktar now appears to have made a pitch to "al Qaeda central" with the In Amenas attack. In a video recorded during the standoff, he went out of his way to claim the attack on behalf of al Qaeda.
Belmoktar's demand during the siege for the release from U.S. prisons of Omar Abdul Rahman (the blind sheikh) and Aafia Siddiqi, two hugely popular figures in pro-al Qaeda circles, may have been a calculated effort to boost his popularity.
"Al Qaeda's stamp of approval to these guys means everything because without this, they have little legitimacy" Benotman told CNN. "Zawahiri and the top leadership will have to intervene and sort the problem out. Belmoktar is now a legend, so they'll have no choice but to hear him out," he said.
Tawil agrees, calling Belmoktar "the rising star among the Islamists in the Sahel."
He believes Zawahiri may try to resolve the dispute by installing him as the leader of a separate al Qaeda affiliate in the Sahara-Sahel region, but says this probably would not end their rivalry.
Tawil told CNN that Droukdel and Belmoktar may escalate their terrorist campaigns in North Africa and the Sahara to outbid each other in responding to the French military offensive in Mali.
"Both of them will be trying to prove that they are worthy of carrying the name "jihad," and they will try to do something in next days and months," he told CNN.
Belmoktar has become one of the top targets of Western intelligence services. According to a security source briefed by Western intelligence, French intelligence services have been targeting him for some time out of concern that he might organize attacks in France or try to bring down a civilian airplane with surface-to-air missiles looted from Gadhafi regime stockpiles.
Some say that such is the rivalry between the two men that Western intelligence services should think twice about targeting Belmoktar.
In a policy briefing published by the Quilliam Foundation on Monday, Benotman argued that "in order to create a self-defeating mechanism within AQIM itself, it would be highly effective to encourage and foster an already existing strong rivalry and disunity within the group."
But in the meantime, Belmoktar and Droukdel will no doubt be planning further operations against Western interests in North Africa.