Over the long weekend I entered into a conversation/debate with a few folks on Twitter, including Andrew Lebovich, Xavier Rauscher, and itsme_leclerc, concerning the pros and cons of ransom payments and armed rescues in Sahelian hostage crises. Feeling constrained by Twitter’s character limit, I started to write up my thoughts on different ways to prevent or resolve the ransoms vs. rescues dilemma. But then I realized it would be good to write a background piece laying out the key kidnapping incidents in the Sahel from 2007 (AQIM’s official birthdate) to the present. With that background in place, I hope to write a piece later in the week going deeper into the key issues.
Here is the chronology of AQIM’s kidnappings, murders, and kidnappings gone wrong, as best I can assemble it. This list only includes incidents in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, and only incidents involving American and European victims. I have organized the list by dates and outcomes.
- December 24, 2007, Mauritania: Four French tourists killed. Outcome: Mauritania sentenced three AQIM members to death.
- February 22, 2008, Tunisia: Austrian citizens Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber kidnapped in Tunisia, subsequently moved to Mali. Outcome: AQIM released the Austrians on October 31, 2008. One source alleges that the Austrian government paid a $4 million ransom and that several AQIM members were released.
- December 14, 2008, Niger: Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay kidnapped in Niger. Outcome: AQIM released Fowler and Guay in Mali on April 22, 2010 (along with other hostages, see below), potentially in exchange for AQIM prisoners.
- January 22, 2009, Mali: European tourists Edwin Dyer, Marianne Petzold, Gabriella Greitner, and Werner Greiner kidnapped near the Niger border. Outcome: AQIM freed Petzold and Greitner on April 22. AQIM claimed that four militants had been released in exchange. After demanding the release of Abu Qatada, an Al Qaeda member held in Britain, and meeting refusal from the British government, AQIM killed Dyer on May 31. AQIM released Greiner on July 12. Various sources online allege that the Swiss government paid a large ransom for Greiner’s release.
- June 23, 2009, Mauritania: American aid worker Christopher Leggett murdered in Nouakchott during an attempted kidnapping attempt (claimed by AQIM). Outcome: Several arrests of AQIM members.
- November 14, 2009, Niger: Attempted kidnapping of American Embassy personnel in Tahoua. Outcome: Attempt failed (see Kennedy’s comment below).
- November 25, 2009, Mali: French citizen Pierre Camatte kidnapped near the border with Niger. Outcome: Prisoner exchange. After AQIM threatened to kill Camatte, Mali released four AQIM militants around February 20, 2010, and AQIM released Camatte on February 23, 2010.
- November 29, 2009, Mauritania: Spanish aid workers Albert Vilalta, Roque Pascual, and Alicia Gamez kidnapped near Nouadhibou. Outcome: AQIM released Gamez on March 10, 2010. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Spanish government paid a ransom. AQIM released Vilalta and Pascual on August 22, 2010. According to Al Jazeera, “Spain’s daily newspapers El Mundo and ABC both reported…that the release of the aid workers was the result of a payment by the Spanish government which El Mundo put at $4.8m and ABC at between $6.3m and $12.7m. The Spanish government strongly denied that a ransom had been paid following the release of Gamez but has been silent on the reports of ransom payments since then.”
- December 18, 2009, Mauritania: Italian citizens Nicola Sergio Cicala and Philomen Kabouree kidnapped. Outcome: AQIM released Cicala and Kabouree on April 16, 2010. Italian officials indicated the release came about because of diplomatic negotiations but did not say whether a ransom was paid.
- April 19, 2010, Niger: French citizen Michel Germaneau kidnapped in northern Niger and moved to Mali. Outcome: AQIM threatened to kill Germaneau unless some of its members were released from prison. Following a French and Mauritanian army raid on AQIM members in Mali that reportedly killed six militants, AQIM announced it had killed Germaneau on July 25.
- September 16, 2010, Niger: Five French workers kidnapped in northern Niger. Outcome: AQIM still holds the hostages.
- January 7, 2011, Niger: French aid worker Antoine De Leocour and French citizen Vincent Delory kidnapped in Niamey. Outcome: After pursuit by Nigerien and French forces and a battle with AQIM, De Leocour and Delory died during the rescue attempt on January 8. The French Foreign Ministry has stated that the two victims were shot with Kalashnikovs (Fr), indicating they were killed by their captors and not by French fire.
Is this the complete list? Let me know if I’ve missed any incidents. If the list proves complete, I will come back to this later in the week and write up some thoughts on what this history signifies. In the meantime, Selected Wisdom has some thoughts on the issue here that are worth your time to read.
UPDATE 1: Thanks to Kennedy (see comments), I’ve added an attempted kidnapping in Niger to the list, and changed my description of the list to include incidents involving Americans.
UPDATE 2: itsme_leclerc pointed out the article on the use of Kalashnikovs in the latest hostage murder; I’ve linked this article above.
UPDATE 3: Commenter teb. suggested I clarify where each incident occurred, so I have moved country names so that they appear next to the dates.
Thanks Alex. Wish you a very happy and successful 2011. I don’t think you have forgotten anything. Always the same question: how come the kidnappers go to the same area under the strong surveillance of the US military and we lean now of the French military. Always. Besides the fabrication of AQIM, no action is meant to convince the rest of us that the sahara-sahel is so bad to justify the establishment of foreign military bases. The kidnappers are found when there is kidnapping and not anymore when there is no ransom payment. These chaps communicate with Thurayas and even Nokias and no chance to catch them or localize them. This is very fishy and decent people are sick of this game.
Thanks for weighing in. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts when I write up my piece on potential solutions.
The list above is Europeans, but there was also the attempted Kidnapping of US embassy employees at the Hotel Tarka in Tahoua, Niger, Nov 14 ’09. The attempt failed, rumors say because either the Americans knew it was coming, or one of them spoke Arabic & talked their way out of it (no idea how much faith to have in either of those). Don’t think AQIM ever actually claimed that one.
Thanks for the link. I’ve often wondered as well why AQIM keeps using kidnapping – it seems they could chase out westerners just as easily with cheaper tactics (if that’s their goal) and that post points out other ways they could make money…
Thanks Kennedy, I’ve updated the list. As for why they use kidnapping, one answer might be that they don’t always do the kidnapping themselves. So maybe when a group of criminals comes to AQIM with a hostage, AQIM figures it’s worth their while to take on the hostage and see how much money they can get.
Nice work, very clear and concise. Wonder if it would be worthwhile to add which country the hostages were/are being held in. Most observers would know it’s Mali, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle and would contribute to the thoroughness of the list. Keep up the good work and thank you!
Note: I meant “add the country” where it isn’t already noted.
firstly almost all kidnappings take place outside of Mali, in Mauri-Niger and even as far away as Tunisia (the strangest of them all – how were the hostages transported to Mali?). Hostages are then moved to north Mali and held there.
Why not kidnap westerners in Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao or any other place nearby – would make logistical sense and minimize risks. There are thousands of westerners in Mali, most of them French.
Secondly, why wasn’t the kidnapping attempt in Tahoua more widely reported? Simply because of lack of journalists in Niger? Scant information has come out from this incident.
Try and see if you can guess which kidnappings were done by Aqim proper and which were done by bounty hunters.
Hi Priffe, these are good observations and questions. I will try to address some of them in my next piece.
Are there really thousands of westerners in Mali? I have been trying to find statistics.
I don’t have the statistics either but surely there must be thousands at least in October-April when counting the foreign offices in Bamako, westerners residing in Mali, NGOs, military, missions, people doing research, hotel and business owners, tourists etc.
One could also try to figure out which hostages were held by MBM and which by AbuZeid.
Your first comment was my point, I was asking not for clarification of where each incident occurred, but where the hostages ended up being held.
ATT talks much about regional cooperation, and yet…
I like what you did with that post, Alex. It’s a good idea to gather that kind of data and keep track of it, to see just how far the cycle of violence will go, and how it evolves over time.
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