Over the weekend, a tragedy unfolded in Niger:
With stunned diners looking on, the turbaned attackers burst through the metal door of the open-air restaurant and went straight for their targets: two Frenchmen whom they brazenly dragged at gunpoint into a vehicle waiting outside.
The kidnapping, blamed by French authorities on al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, ended with the pair’s tragic deaths during a failed French-led rescue attempt over the weekend. The bold hostage-taking showed in the most chilling way that abductions like these are no longer limited to the distant, lawless deserts of northwestern Africa where smugglers and bandits have long held sway.
This abduction on Friday happened right in Niger’s capital, Niamey.
As in every case involving hostage-taking in the Sahel, authorities faced tough choices between negotiation and armed rescue. In this case, they chose to fight the kidnappers:
Niger says its troops pursued the kidnappers and clashed with them about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Niamey. A second skirmish took place about 17 kilometers (10 miles) west of Ouallam, a remote district near the Mali border. French forces intervened in that battle, rappelling from helicopters in a failed attempt to rescue the hostages
The Frenchmen were found dead afterward — though it remains unclear whether they were executed by their captors or killed in crossfire. Niger said three of its paramilitary soldiers were killed and four wounded.
French Defense Minister Alain Juppe stressed that French forces were not to blame for the deaths of the two men, but this incident will confront French and Sahelian policymakers with tough choices going forward.
Some increase in security will occur – France is urging Niger to take “extra security measures,” and French helicopters are still patrolling over Mali. Some back in France are urging more. Perhaps speaking for some of his fellow politicians, “French Deputy Nicolas Dupont-Aignan said France must invest more in defense and security in Africa and less in Afghanistan.”
Increased security may help in reducing kidnappings or in enhancing future rescues, but the same dilemma I described in September remains in place:
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.
I can see why an armed rescue is tempting for the French and Nigerien governments: in the best case scenario, kidnappers die and hostages go free. And I can see why negotiations and ransom payments are unattractive. But this weekend’s failed rescue was a military, political, and human disaster. When another Sahelian hostage crisis arises – and at this rate, another one seems certain to come – the French will have to weigh the risks and benefits of an armed rescue even more carefully than they have until now. And in general, until French and Sahelian policymakers can navigate beyond the Scylla of militarization and the Charybdis of ransoms, they will continue to face grim dilemmas like these.