Sahel Kidnappings: Mali, Now Mauritania

Violent incidents are focusing international attention on criminality in the Sahel, continuing a trend that has gone on since at least 2007.

Yesterday gunmen stopped an aid convoy in Mauritania and kidnapped three Spanish nationals.

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.”

The Mauritanian Sahara

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.

13 thoughts on “Sahel Kidnappings: Mali, Now Mauritania

  1. I agree that a nuanced understanding is essential for governments to effectively respond to the decreasing security situation in the Sahel. However, I think that what is emerging in public view here is much closer to the type of networked organizations which have made Al Qaeda, and its affiliates, successful. A loose conglomeration of similarly inspired jihadist organization closely tied to criminal networks, such as drug smuggling, people smuggling, weapons sales, and kidnap rings. The recent crash of a drug-laden 727 in the Sahel seemingly reinforces this point. Somewhere in the recent past the security threat posed by these organizations was transposed with the image of a monolithic organization which never existed. Perhaps this was due to the extreme fear 9/11 sparked not only in the US but worldwide. Where do regional governments and their partners go from here? How does the US protect its interests in the region against a backdrop of increased capability and operational success by AQIM/transnational criminals inthe Sahel? At this point I am not sure these questions can be answered.

  2. I am sure that there is some link between what occured in Menaka, at te Malian/Niger border and in Mauritania. In reading carefully the full interview of Fowler, the Canadian hostage, both Menaka and the rapt on the Nouakchott-Nouadhibou look exactly the same as the one for Fowler and Guay: the hostages takers are well informed, knowing exactly whom to take, and you get the impression that they know they will never be caught. Otherwise, you have to be crazy to do these things when everyone is watching over that desert. As I said before here and elsewhere, AQIM is only found when they abduct hostages and there is ransom to be paid. I was checking yesteday past news and I learn from Temoust that there are or were two bases near Tenaka, from where the Frenchman was taken …

    So in my humble opinion, a or government (s) might be involved. Communicating with high tech satellite phones, getting connected computer-wise in the middle of nowhere, having night vision equipments (See interview of Fowler) is something the Comorra or the Colombian cartel cannot affort. I am even wondering if there was any drug at all inthat plane that crashed near Terkint. Something does not hold, for long time on this business.

  3. What I find especially interesting is what these hostage takers are demanding: money. They may well have political aims, but these things seems to sublimated to business.

    Now the fear that this business may be funding something more sinister is quite real, but is their choice of kidnap targets driven by ideology or the deep pockets of western governments? There surely is a balancing act between individuals holding hostages, but I would say that SO FAR the belief that white folks are worth more has been winning.

    Are governments involved? Surely people who hold government positions are involved in the drug trade, and more traditional arms/cigarette/alcohol smuggling. And this gives these networks advantages, mostly in intelligence and protection.

    But technology is hardly the big one. I can buy nightvision goggles, a Thuraya Satellite Phone, and a laptop with a GPS in New York City for a few thousand $USs. Surely one run of Jack Daniels could have outfitted these guys with all this, and its a much more likely source than the Malian army, who don’t generally equip their own men with these things.

    Saying that the Italian Mafia or Colombian drug cartels don’t have such equipment is laughable. Various Colombian and Mexican gangs have been building honest to god submarines to ship coke to the US for a decade. If you see the AQIM with a helicopter gunship, then you should be worried about US/Malian government supply issues.

  4. Thanks for the responses everyone. Taking Brad and Tommy’s comments together, it seems people are leaning toward describing AQIM as a mafia, ie emphasizing the criminal over the political. There are definitely strong arguments for that.

    As for government involvement, it’s hard to say – and even if government officials were involved, it might be more on an individual basis, as Tommy suggests, than as government-wide policy.

    • Alex,

      AQIM is a creation over geopolitics in the area. Period. Let’s see where the Spanish hostages will end: Northern Mali. I bet you can’t do 3,000 kilometers from Nouadhibou to around Tarkint when you have the military from 3-5 countries looking for you. There is no forest, but bare land and they can spot any damm snake on the sand between Nouadhibou to Tarkint.

  5. Tommy, Great points on the proliferation of the military technology in question. Quite frankly, the cartels are likely much better funded than the governments in question, their people are more highly trained/educated, and profit driven often beats out service to an indifferent government. The AQIM links to government are more likely to sympathizers inside Niger, Mauritania, or Mali than any more nefarious plot. Brad

    • Don’t look at local governments, but “outside” governments. Everything is coming from outside, including exporting the war to Mali, Mauritania and Niger. You can buy military technology everywhere. But there is also technology to track these things, but nothing is done. “Nefarious” plots, we have seen them confirmed in the Middle East and elsewhere. We don’t want them home here,please. Any tentative to get good governance and democracy is sabotaged by those who claim “good” things. Look at Mauritania, Guinea and Niger. Do you believe that game over gas , oil and uranium is worth killing innocent people?

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  9. Brad and Tommy,

    Why none of these hostage takers never caught, after hijacking and ransom payments?. The go-between since the 32 hostages is known (Ould Sheikh) and he said so in broad daylight. If you read carefully the interview of Fowler in the Globe & Mail, it is evident that the hostage takers wanted to make him believe that they are AQIM. They are not.

    Wondering if there was any drug in that plane ….

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