Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed responsibility for the murder of Christopher Leggett, an American aid worker resident in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Leggett (he was originally incorrectly identified as Christopher Logest) was killed during an attempted kidnapping by two gunmen earlier this week. Beginning with the first reports of the tragedy, news reports speculated involvement by terrorist groups, but the statement AQIM released to Al Jazeera yesterday seems to confirm their responsibility for the incident:
The Arab satellite channel said it had received an audio message in which the group said it had killed 39-year-old Christopher Leggett on Tuesday.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it had targeted Mr Leggett for allegedly spreading Christianity in the country.
Al-Jazeera said it could not verify the authenticity of the message.
“Two knights of the Islamic Maghreb succeeded Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. to kill the infidel American Christopher Leggett for his Christianising activities,” the group was reported to have said.
The mention of Leggett’s “Christianising activities” likely refers to Leggett’s Baptist background, though his pastor in Tennessee noted that Leggett’s aid work in Mauritania was independent of any church.
AQIM’s statement probably reflects real involvement by the terrorist group in Leggett’s murder, and in that case the crime fits into a pattern of, as I said the other day, “other acts of terrorism by [AQIM] such as the 2007 killing of four French tourists in Mauritania, an attack on the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott in 2008, and recent kidnappings, murders, and attacks elsewhere in the Sahara.”
However, the possibility remains that AQIM is claiming responsibility after the fact for a crime it did not orchestrate, simply to exaggerate its power. Was this rather a crime of opportunity? All descriptions of the attack that I have seen have made the kidnappers seem amateurish, which is most evident in the fact that they botched the attempt and also in that some who saw them waiting described them as appearing nervous. Moreover, AQIM’s statement reads as though the point of the attack was to kill Leggett on the spot – when all the eyewitness testimony I have read says that the gunmen were trying to force Leggett into a car and kidnap him. That to me indicates these men were seeking a ransom.
The frustrating part is, we may never know the full story or the full extent of AQIM’s involvement. That in turn poses problems for policymakers and members of the intelligence community as they attempt to formulate a response.
In any case, the northwest Sahara is seeming somewhat unsafe for westerners these days. Between Leggett’s murder and the execution of Edwin Dyer, a case in which there is no doubt that AQIM bore responsibility, and various other kidnappings, anti-western violence is a serious concern.