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.