Violent incidents are focusing international attention on criminality in the Sahel, continuing a trend that has gone on since at least 2007.
The three Spanish nationals, “two men and a woman, were travelling in a car, the last vehicle of a convoy that was heading from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott” when they were attacked on Sunday afternoon, a Spanish diplomat said.
The convoy had earlier delivered aid to Nouadhibou and was transporting donations that they intended to drop off in various towns along the route, the diplomat added.
A Mauritanian security source confirmed the kidnapping, adding the kidnappers fired several shots to force the vehicle to stop and then took the Spaniards away in a 4×4 vehicle.
A spokesman for the Spanish humanitarian group Barcelona-Accio Solidaria confirmed the three were members of their association and named them as Albert Vilalta, Alicia Gamez and Roque Pascual.
“The found all the supplies only the people were gone,” said the spokesman, adding “we don’t know anything more, if they were bandits or had any political motives.”
A Spanish humanitarian worker based in Mauritania, Montse Bosch, was able to speak by telephone with some of the other members of the aid convoy following the kidnapping.
“A group of armed men stopped and then took them, leaving their vehicle in place and without touching any of the supplies, luggage or money contained in the car,” she said.
Bosch said Barcelona-Accio Solidaria is part of the Caravana Solidaria, or Solidarity Caravan, which distributes aid in Mauritania and other African countries in the region.
The attack took place near the town of Chelkhett Legtouta, 170 kilometres (106 miles) north of Nouakchott, according to the Mauritanian security source.
Reuters adds some political context, saying the incident “will heighten security fears in the West African desert republic where al Qaeda-linked gunmen operate.”
Killings in Trarza on Saturday appeared unrelated to the kidnapping of the Spaniards, but observers are wondering about connections between the incident in Mauritania and the seizure of a French national in Menaka, Mali last Thursday. Over the weekend, a Malian official confirmed that AQIM is holding the victim, Pierre Camatte, after using “intermediaries” to abduct and transfer him.
These incidents will have an immediate and negative effect on aid delivery in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. France has issued warnings to French citizens resident in Mali, asking them to head back to Bamako. Commenter Wyndham Carter writes, “Our son has just had his Peace Corps service in Niger terminated because of these concerns about AQIM” and that “with the withdrawal of Peace Corps, these people are really left with no economic development support to improve their lives.” If foreign governments and aid agencies perceive a pattern of violence and terrorism in the Sahel, the region could see more military attention – and less humanitarian activity on the ground.
I’ve said this before, but essential for an understanding of what’s going on is the question of AQIM’s coherence. On the one hand, we could argue that AQIM are cold-bloodedly masterminding terrorist attacks from the Atlantic Ocean to the heart of the Malian Sahara. On the other hand, we could argue that AQIM is a loose organization that exploits its relationships with freelance criminals to enhance its political reputation (and income). Or we could argue something in between. The point is, the policy response that Sahelian governments and outside actors adopt with regard to these kidnappings will depend heavily on the way they view AQIM. That’s why it’s essential to work carefully to understand the group and its assorted alliances.