France and AQIM, Continued

Last week, it looked as though France was poised to attempt an armed rescue of seven hostages recently kidnapped by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Niger (and since moved to Mali, where they are apparently alive). The deployment of some eighty French soldiers and associated reconnaissance aircraft to the Sahel led Time to headline one of its pieces “Kidnappings Escalate France’s Desert War on al-Qaeda.” AQIM, perhaps anticipating violence, released a statement warning France not to attack.

But France has also pursued a negotiations-based strategy during the crisis, and that element of the French approach seems uppermost now. The French say they do not plan to use military force, and are in fact “ready to talk to the kidnappers.” French soldiers are still seeking the hostages, so a battle may still come, but for the moment the focus is on jaw-jaw, not war-war.

These latest kidnappings have roused others to greater activity as well. Yesterday Saharan countries’ military and intelligence officers met at Tamanrasset, Algeria, the regional anti-AQIM center, to strategize. The meeting follows diplomatic activities having to do partly with AQIM, including a continued warming in Mauritanian-Malian relations and the nomination of a new US ambassador to Mauritania who has “vowed stepped-up US support as the north African nation presses its fight against Islamic militants.” Meanwhile, Mauritania has been fighting AQIM directly. Kal has summaries of those events here, here and here.

The spate of kidnappings in the Sahel is making the French, American, and Saharan governments increasingly nervous and frustrated, and this kidnapping incident is leading to a real turning point. There are a lot of ways this could go – a successful negotiation and release, a successful rescue, a botched rescue, further clashes, increased inter-governmental cooperation, increased Western involvement with the problem – but whichever way it goes, I think this incident and its aftermath will affect future strategy more decisively than the other kidnappings I’ve followed. That seems to be the case both because the number of captives is higher than in earlier incidents and because this kidnapping came at a time when tensions (and clashes) were already running very high.

If the French and their allies succeed here without serious bloodshed, I think tensions could dip back down. But if the hostages die, or if their release comes only after serious violence, then I think the rumored escalation of the conflict could become very real – not into a full-blown war, but into a more sustained, and higher-casualty, series of clashes.

7 thoughts on “France and AQIM, Continued

  1. Hi Alex and thanks for this blog- I’ve recently discovered it (and linked accordingly)- this is a great resource with good analysis and a great consolidation of current information.

    One of the challenging but equally interesting trends with AQIM is that their way of operating makes them typically difficult to pin down. Talking to locals in Niger, the Areva kidnappings weren’t carried out by AQIM operatives directly- the raid was reportedly carried out by Tuaregs with some allegience to/interaction with AQIM. What I’m hearing here in Niamey is that the hostages were then handed over/sold to AQIM and moved on.

    We see AQIM building then on pre-existing tensions within their areas of operation (longstanding Tuareg anomisity towards Govt of Niger and towards French extraction firms for poor sharing of resources/profits). This becomes a platform for AQIM to leverage its international profile and further its political purposes- a true exporter of insurgence, and very much the franchise operation that ‘Al Qaeda’- such as it exists as an entity, or identity- has shown globally.

    If this is indeed AQIM’s modus operandi across the Sahel/Maghreb, perhaps the best way to combat is not to hunt down what is in all likelihood a very small band of hard-core operatives, but rather to seek to diffuse the underlying tensions that give AQIM its leverage (e.g. in Niger, perhaps greater profit-sharing and autonomy for Tuareg regions). It’s important that states and donors tackle these root issues early rather than late, before a radicalization of disenfranchised populations (currently underway) pushes beyond a threshold where broader dialogue with these segments of society is possible.

    -MA

    • Thanks for stopping by and offering these perceptive comments. I tend to constantly overlook the Tuareg and the role of AQIM’s affiliates, so this is another good reminder to pay attention to that aspect of things.

      As for what you say here:

      the best way to combat is not to hunt down what is in all likelihood a very small band of hard-core operatives, but rather to seek to diffuse the underlying tensions that give AQIM its leverage (e.g. in Niger, perhaps greater profit-sharing and autonomy for Tuareg regions). It’s important that states and donors tackle these root issues early rather than late, before a radicalization of disenfranchised populations (currently underway) pushes beyond a threshold where broader dialogue with these segments of society is possible.

      …that sounds very sensible to me. Do you see a chance of that happening?

  2. It’s hard to say. In the past the Nigerien and Malian governments have taken both routes. In the 90s, the Tuareg rebellions were met first with force, and later with a moderately stable peace agreement. However the underlying causes of the disatisfaction that led to the conflict were not properly addressed, hence the 2007 resurgence. At the current time I don’t believe the issues have been properly addressed, which is why we continue to see unrest in Tuareg areas, and why AQIM have a willing partner. That said, I know that there have been various moves over the years to increase Tuareg autonomy, and it’s a challenge for a government to meet the needs of different segments of its population without giving in to national extortion.

    With the Nigerien transitional government focused on the elections between now and the first quarter of next year I don’t believe that the needs of the Tuareg will be at the top of the agenda; they are a population minority and will not guarantee election for any party, so their needs will wait in the short term. I think it falls to influential governments (dare I say the French and the Americans?) to push Sahelian governments in dealing with these structural issues in order to reduce the threat of conflict and insurgency. Unfortunately the model that the US has given us in Pakistan and Afghanistan indicates that they’ll resort to using SF teams before they use aid policies. It will be interesting to hear what comes out of the workshops in Algeria and whether Sahelian governments express a desire to tackle the causes and not just the symptoms.

    • What you say makes sense. I too am looking forward to hearing about the results of the efforts at cooperation between Algeria and the others.

  3. Regarding hardline approach vs. trying to approve living conditions in the desert areas.
    I don’t know why these two alternatives are often put up against each other, while it is obvious you have to do both.
    There is a core of rebels in Aqim that will not give themselves up, as they have had many opportunities to do so in Algerian amnesties. These elements will have to be defeated militarily.
    Most of Aqim are however opportunistic followers who will turn to other lines of business when kidnapping and assault is no longer attractive, or profitable.
    Then still remains the political solution where it is absolutely necessary to improve life for tuaregs, berabich, fulani, all who try to survive in the harsh environment. Until that process is started and showing results, there will continue to be an abundance of easy recruits for the criminals and rebels.

    • Regarding hardline approach vs. trying to approve living conditions in the desert areas.
      I don’t know why these two alternatives are often put up against each other, while it is obvious you have to do both.

      Well put. I think though that sometimes people feel Sahelian governments and the West pursue military solutions at the expense of political solutions. So people call for balance. But you’re right that it’s not necessarily either/or. It can be both/and too.

  4. Trying to improve living conditions is medium to long term. AQMI sabotaging and trying to grab power is sort term. Short-term solution for short-term problem: hardline approach is the solution first while doing the rest. But when AQIM is manipulated, nothing works until the manipulators stop.

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