Will French Military Efforts Against AQIM Succeed?

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:

9 thoughts on “Will French Military Efforts Against AQIM Succeed?

  1. This is an impossible situation.

    The French pursuing AQIM through the desert is an invitation to AQIM to defect from negotiations and kill the hostages. This is exactly, what we’ve seen in the past. Yet, how many hostage deaths will warrant an occupational force? At this rate I think we are still far from seeing full Western intervention proposed as the solution.

    It’s not difficult for me to imagine a scenario where an occupational “serious force” is deployed in the region under the auspices of OEF-TS or whatever the French counterpart is. At this point, I worry that any type occupation force in the Sahel will not be able to do much more than engender discontent (blow-back, credit for this phrase goes to Jeremy Keenan) with the West for once again thinking they know best (neo-imperial or not).

    On the other hand having tourists, aid workers, and other overseas civilian citizens (hopefully never graduate students) kidnapped on a regular basis is not really a better situation.

    It almost seems like AQIM is operating at the perfect capacity. Allowing them to be too insignificant to be dealt with militarily, yet operational enough to make their presence known and have serious effects on Western citizens in the region.

    I think if AQIM tips that balance to becoming more operational and aggressive, for example by launching an attack on France, there will be a significantly higher level of international cooperation and Western military intervention in the region. AQIM has the region’s and its Western allies’ hands tied. Perhaps, that is why no coherent strategy has really come to the forefront in terms of how to handle these kidnappings.

    Links:

    OEF-TS: http://www.africom.mil/oef-ts.asp

    Keenan’s article: http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2010/07/201071994556568918.html

    • Nicely argued. This is particularly insightful:

      It almost seems like AQIM is operating at the perfect capacity. Allowing them to be too insignificant to be dealt with militarily, yet operational enough to make their presence known and have serious effects on Western citizens in the region.

      Thanks for stopping by! Do you have your own site?

  2. I do not have site. Not sure I would have to much to add on politics in the Sahel with sites like yours and Kal’s.

    I’ve just started a political science PhD program at the University of Florida studying Islam and Politics in the Sahel under Leonardo Villalon. I’m putting together a research design on civil-military relations in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Mali. Just getting started on the literature review.

    • Apologies to Alex for posting a response to this that is unrelated to this excellent post’s subject.

      I am excited to hear about your project; I am a civil-military relations enthusiast especially where and coup-making, coup-proofing and all of that is in the picture — its part of what has me interested in the Sahel to begin with. When you get further along or find interesting bits in the process of your lit review, please share them!

  3. The French response to the growing AQMI threat is going to be interesting to monitor.

    Traditionally – that is, since the Algerian War – France has been reticent to use military force to counter terrorist groups: too costly, too risky, and not necessarily adequate. They prefer to resort to a very strong centralized law enforcement system coupled with thorough intelligence agencies with judicial mandates (i.e., they’re both spooks and cops).

    In this particular case, France has no choice but to send soldiers in the Sahel, if only for reconnaissance. How far will the military intervention goes is anyone’s guess at the moment.

    My feeling is that at the moment, all options are on the table. But I’m not sure they’ll accept to pay a ransom, because there’s a strong risk that that money would be used to later attack French interests, possibly on French territory itself.

  4. Pingback: France and AQIM, Continued « Sahel Blog

  5. Pingback: Niger: French Deaths Reignite Questions about Negotiations versus Rescues « Sahel Blog

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