AQIM, Kidnapping, and French Interdiction in the Sahel

AQIM/Bandits/Evildoers kidnapped two Frenchmen from a Niamey (Niger) restaurant last week.  The French government, exhausted by AQIM’s repeated kidnappings, launched military forces to prevent the kidnappers from vanishing into AQIM’s safe haven.  Unfortunately, French engagement resulted in the captors executing the two hostages.  AQIM’s taking of French hostages has been relatively lucrative, but I’m more convinced everyday this tactic is evidence of AQIM’s weakness rather than strength.

Sometimes, AQIM outsources the kidnapping to loosely aligned clans harboring disagreements with Sahel central governments and their Western backers.  Affiliated tribes, either acting on AQIM desires or with a couple AQIM members embedded in the clan, roam Niger and Mali looking for easy Western targets.  When Western prey appear (AKA “Frenchmen in the Open”), clans snatch up the targets sweeping them quickly into the deepest realms of the desert.  AQIM exchanges cash with the clans for the hostages and then initiates ransom negotiations with Western governments via third party governments and illicit networks.  These negotiations persist for months until both AQIM and the Western government/MNC establish a fair exchange price.

In the beginning, AQIM’s kidnapping program occurred rather easily.  Western tourists and workers floated into interior Mali and Niger as part of a Timbuktu history expedition or multi-national corporation (MNC) mineral extraction project.  However, each kidnapping resulted in increased security from Sahel central governments and the West as well as fewer prey floating into the desert.  To sustain the kidnappings and subsequent revenues, AQIM must then move further from the desert into more urban areas (Niamey) to secure more Western hostages.  AQIM’s long lines of logistics result in greater operational risk, more intermediaries between kidnapping and safe haven, and greater costs due to distance and graft.  Ultimately, French forces have more time to deploy and intercept the kidnappers.  Unfortunately, the French couldn’t stop this one but kudos to the French for trying.  For AQIM, kidnapping operations, in my opinion, weaken their capability and credibility as a terrorist organization for several reasons.

1. Kidnapping revenues are imprecise and unpredictable-
While the bounty for hostages remains high, AQIM kidnappers likely don’t know when or how much they will receive for their hostages.  The longer hostage negotiations persist; the lower the profit to AQIM.  Other illicit activities, like drug smuggling, likely provide more predictable, long-run revenue without bringing as much Western counteraction.

2. Kidnapping weakens AQIM’s ideological credentials-
AQIM states publicly the Western hostages will be killed in the name of global jihad.  However, everyone knows Westerners are chosen for their monetary more than symbolic value.  Each ransom paid lowers AQIM’s credibility as a terrorist group and raises its profile as a criminal syndicate.

3. Hostages are needy-
Unlike other illicit activities, hostages require lots of care; especially in the Sahel.  Sahara traveling with Western hostages is no picnic. I recommend Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King for an 1815 historical account of shipwrecked American sailors being drug through the Sahara by Moor caravans.  Western hostages are physically weak, eat up resources, and often times die in captivity.  Unlike Colombia where captors tuck hostages in fixed locations with supporting infrastructure (they do move them around a little but its not a desert), the Sahel requires AQIM to constantly be moving and resupplying over extended distances in austere conditions.  Hostages equal higher logistical costs, larger operational constraints, and constant distraction.

What really comes of these AQIM revenues?
Repeated AQIM kidnappings and ransoms have resulted in no apparent increase in AQIM capability.  I’ve heard many warnings of expanded AQIM action resulting from European ransom payments.  Instead, AQIM seems more motivated by money than ideology; more criminal than terrorist.  Maybe, millions of dollars still can’t buy AQIM much if they’re confined to the Sahara.

7 comments

  1. Hi,

    I enjoyed reading your article. I am also enjoying reading Skeletons in the Sahel. It is a little bit unfomfortable reading at the moment however because I am currently living in Selibaby, Mauritania where we are having to think quite a lot about the risk of being kidnapped. Usually the NGO we work with would do that for us. The particular NGO, while it has a good general reputation, does not have experience of working in insecure environments. I also don´t have experience of insecure environments. They have their proceedures but I´m afraid I don´t have confidence in them. At the moment we are debating whether to move us – two French women, a Bolivian and an Irishman (me) – to Kaedi, further from the Malian border. Some people are saying we should go and some people that the risk does not warrent relocation and the disruption of work.
    Uhm, can I ask, how you would view that?

    • Brian,

      Thank you for writing and doing something challenging; providing aid in Mauritania. A few caveats right off, I am not a Mauritania expert. I have no idea what your on-the-ground situation is. I don’t know too much about NGO security but have encountered it a bit. So please don’t make any decisions based on what I quickly type here.
      As far as Sleibaby, from what I’ve heard, that area is not particularly unsafe. However, I believe there was bombing incident there within the past week. Is that correct?
      The only advice I can give you is that I have traveled a couple times to places I’ve not felt comfortable. Which is a series of questions:
      1-Who is your protector?
      Essentially, is there a person or an agency that is responsible for getting you to and from the location? Who will watch over you while you are there working? This might just need to be a person or it could be a security detail. Security details tend to impact the amount of development work that can be done.
      2- Do you and/or your group speak the local language fluently, credibly? How much experience do you have in that location? Contacts you can reach out to?
      3- What is your communication plan? Do you have satellite phones, GPS, and way to indicate to others if you need help or have concerns?

      I’ll start with this and let me give it some more thought. Have you tried asking this question to MoorNextDoor or SahelBlog, one of the other more regional blogs? They may have more specifics particular to your location.

  2. Interesting piece, thanks, and I would agree with you about the criminal syndicate/ideological jihadists contradiction. There seems to be little evidence of ideologically based terrorism in the area, much as that scenario would clearly appeal to many governments, since there have been few, if any, attacks on iconic targets.

    With respect, however, you do discuss kidnappings as if they were quite common, and to kidnappings occurring in Mali and Niger

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    as if there were some widespread phenomenon at work.

    My information suggests that instances of kidnapping in the Sahel are exceedingly rare and not part of a general threat but one created by a limited number of criminally motivated individuals.

    I’ve blogged about the threats of travel in the Sahel at http://theroughguidetowestafrica.blogspot.com/2011/02/travel-in-sahel-how-safe-are-tourists.html

    • Richard,

      Thanks for the post and your perspective from the field. It’s always good to have the perspective of those that are there actually traveling the ground. I checked out your blog and I’ll be sure to return there often as I’m a big fan of Kenya as well.

      As for the notion of kidnapping being rare, in terms of everyday events, you’re very correct. On scale, kidnapping occurs infrequently. That being said, I was reading the Christian Science Monitor today and came across this quote:

      In the past 12 months, AQIM has kidnapped a dozen people, most of them European tourists, and executed at least three. The group has also claimed responsibility for three recent incidents in Mauritania: an armed attack at the French embassy and two attempted car bombings. Since 2003, AQIM fighters have kidnapped or murdered more than 50 people.

      I think if you are a European or definitely an American, and you are traveling the Sahel and appear to be worth a ransom, there’s a decent chance you might get kidnapped.

      In your case, you’re obviously a seasoned traveler, have local contacts, speak some languages, know your way around. But often times the tourists that travel to these parts, don’t have your skills and can become easy prey.

      The context I brought it up was in regards to ransoms and the ensuing obligation of Western governments to either pay the ransom or rescue the hostage. Both are a big drain on governments. In the case of paying ransoms, it only encourages the kidnappers to commit further kidnappings. And in the case of rescues, they often result in popular backlash from those caught in the crossfire. If I were a government, I’d try to restrain the enthusiasm of my citizens’ travel as well.

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