In July, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) executed French hostage Michel Germaneau following a Mauritanian and French raid on AQIM forces in Mali. The killing, a sequel to the murder of British hostage Edwin Dyer in June 2009, reflected a similar breakdown of negotiations between a Western government and AQIM. These two incidents fit into a pattern I’ve observed over the last year and a half with AQIM: negotiations secure the release of hostages (but possibly strengthen AQIM financially and politically), while a refusal to negotiate or attempts to free hostages by force yield deaths.
Following the recent kidnapping of five French nationals and two other people in Niger (claimed by AQIM, who subsequently moved the captives to Mali), France is now pursuing AQIM with serious force. We’ll see whether they can break the pattern.
Meanwhile, yesterday’s kidnapping of three other French workers in the Niger Delta, and fears of an AQIM attack on France itself, have added to the political pressure on France to protect its citizens at home and abroad.
The problems AQIM is causing have also attracted comment from the UN, which is urging Saharan countries to greater action:
Saharan countries must work together to combat al Qaeda allies in the region, the head of the UN Office for West Africa said, voicing concerns that their influence could spread as far as Nigeria if unchecked.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is stepping up activities in the desert region of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, claiming responsibility for last week’s kidnapping of seven expatriates in Niger, including five French nationals.
Yet while AQIM members successfully exploit porous national borders to evade capture, governments in the region have been slow to overcome historic mistrust and combine security efforts.
“There is no alternative to regional cooperation with international support,” Said Djinnit, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in an interview in the Senegal capital Dakar.
So far cooperation has been slow and Mali, where French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux flew for talks with leaders on Wednesday, is seen by analysts as a particularly weak link.
Djinnit said the need for joint efforts backed by international help was all the greater in a region plagued by regular droughts and without the resources of its own to adequately police vast areas inhabited by nomadic tribes.
Characterizing cooperation as “slow” strikes me as unfair, but more to the point, Western governments believe that Saharan governments are failing to deal with the issue. That perception feeds the momentum toward greater Western political and military intervention in the region. I do not necessarily see that dynamic as revealing a hidden imperialist agenda – it’s possible, but it also seems to me that events have a logic of their own. Most of the players here, including France, seem to be reacting more than acting. The main question for me is what policies are effective. Increased military action could put a real squeeze on AQIM; so far it has not. I hope that French forces will free the hostages, but if they do not succeed in doing so, France should seriously re-evaluate its approach.
Arlit, Niger, where the recent kidnappings occurred: