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.