Since 2007, kidnappings and murders of Westerners in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have presented Sahelian and European policymakers with terrible dilemmas: Should militaries try to rescue hostages? Should governments pay huge ransoms to terrorists? How can authorities prevent kidnappings? How can governments work together to neutralize AQIM? I am exploring these questions in a three-part series. Part one cataloged kidnappings. Part two argued that ransoms are preferable to rescues because rescues are risky, ransoms save lives, and ransom payments have not produced a clear increase in kidnappings. This final installment moves past the ransoms-verses-rescues debate to assess the pros and cons of different preventive solutions. At the end I offer a combined approach.
Solution One: Do less
Before considering what more Sahelian and European governments could do about kidnappings, it’s worth asking whether they should do less. Should governments leave kidnapping victims to their fates? Clint Watts writes, “I’m against ransoms entirely and almost always against rescues…If you want to travel to Timbuktu and study ancient texts, you’re on your own! Good luck and don’t lose your head out there!”
Pros: Reducing the role of European and Sahelian governments in kidnapping crises could deny cash to AQIM, avoid messy rescues, and prevent AQIM from achieving symbolic victories. Refusing to play the ransoms-or-rescues game could reduce AQIM’s incentives to kidnap Europeans and let governments shift from reaction to action.
Cons: Leaving kidnapping victims to their fates might be politically impossible for Sahelian governments (who face pressure from Europe to act and who want to avoid being perceived as weak or incompetent) and European governments (who face domestic pressures to intervene and who want to avoid bad press resulting from deaths). Additionally, victims’ families might try to pay kidnappers, enriching AQIM or endangering private negotiators.
Solution Two: Reduce the Number of Victims
Kidnappings have already reduced European travel to the Sahel. Government policies like issuing travel warnings, cutting exchange programs, requiring tourists to register with local authorities, and taking precautions regarding government employees’ movements give AQIM fewer targets. Further moves could include mandatory information sessions for tourists on avoiding kidnappings, convoy arrangements for travel between destinations, or encouraging Europeans to hire security escorts.
Pros: The fewer targets that are available to kidnappers, the fewer kidnappings there will be.
Cons: Travel will already decrease on its own. Even with increased precautions, some travelers will still be at risk, either through misfortune or recklessness. Discouraging tourism could also hurt Sahelian economies.
Solution Three: Dialogue and Rehabilitation
At least one Sahelian country, Mauritania, is trying to engage militants in religious dialogue and rehabilitate them. Working with Muslim leaders, governments can attack the religious justifications for terrorism. Going further, governments could send preachers into communities where AQIM is known to operate; these preachers could denounce the group and engage clerics who sympathize with AQIM in public debates to undermine their religious credibility. Finally, dialogue could involve listening to the grievances of AQIM members and attempting to find solutions.
Pros: Dialogue could decrease support for AQIM by combating the ideological component of terrorism and addressing community grievances that drive recruitment. Rehabilitation could reduce AQIM’s membership and undercut the demand, often made in hostage crises, that governments free jailed militants.
Cons: Dialogue could legitimize AQIM’s demands, broaden the group’s platform, and waste government resources. Failed rehabilitations could, at great financial and political cost to Sahelian governments, allow for recidivism among militants.
Solution Four: Political and Economic Reform
Governments, in attempting to address root causes of terrorism, could make various political reforms, for example:
- Identifying and purging closet AQIM sympathizers in government
- Conducting listening tours, especially in isolated areas
- Allowing disenfranchised political groups more autonomy
- Moving to nullify AQIM’s demands by adopting more Islamic values in government, for example raising the profile of Islamic advisory councils or giving a larger role to the shari’a.
Economic interventions would center first on identifying the networks that kidnap and sell victims to AQIM. Based on the findings, policymakers would attempt to prevent potential kidnappers from becoming kidnappers by involving them in alternative economic activities, for example by offering subsidies to pastoralists and unemployed youth.
Pros: Political and economic reform could hurt AQIM’s ability to recruit and reduce whatever public support the group enjoys.
Cons: Where will the money and the political will come from? Even if money is available, Sahelian governments could undertake political reforms or launch economic programs and kidnappings might continue. Even worse, failed reforms might hand rhetorical victories to AQIM.
Solution Five: Force
Preemptive force includes what we’ve already seen in the Sahel: attacks on AQIM, surveillance that leads to arrests and foiled plots, intergovernmental military operations, and training missions by Western armies. Some of these efforts have succeeded. Others, particularly moves toward cooperation, seem promising. Yet some observers call for more force, especially a long-term Western military presence in the Sahel.
Pros: A French or American force or a larger commitment by Sahelian governments could transform the fight against AQIM from isolated battles into a systematic campaign to destroy the organization. A larger force could patrol larger areas, reducing AQIM’s range of movement and capacity to seize victims.
Cons: A permanent campaign against AQIM, especially coupled with greater Western involvement in the Sahel, could radicalize other groups in the region, increasing AQIM’s membership even as casualties mounted on both sides. Such a campaign might entail serious expenditures of blood and treasure, sacrifices out of proportion to the problem that AQIM poses.
I favor an approach that incorporates some, but not all, of these ideas. I reject two proposals: First, despite my sympathy for Clint’s perspective, I think that for both European and Sahelian governments, doing nothing is not politically possible. Governments will feel compelled to respond to hostage crises. Second, I think an increased and sustained Western military presence in the Sahel would do more harm than good. While training missions and limited cooperation can accomplish much, deploying French or American troops to the Sahel would likely produce a backlash that extended beyond AQIM, and would have unpredictable effects throughout the region.
I think working on multiple lines simultaneously is the best course. Partly, I am suggesting that Sahelian governments do more of what they are doing now. Increasing intergovernmental military cooperation is a good idea because it could reduce AQIM’s freedom of movement and result in more successful strikes against the group. Dialogue and rehabilitation efforts are worth pursuing – and expanding – in order to drain AQIM’s recruiting pool and delegitimize its religious stances. I do not think that Sahelian governments need to adopt shari’a, but I do think that holding listening tours and reforming or strengthening Islamic advisory councils could communicate that governments take believers’ concerns seriously. Where possible, I suggest governments disrupt the kidnapping economy, either by taking strong steps to reduce unsafe travel or by offering incentives for would-be kidnappers to seek alternative paths. Economic losses from reduced tourism are real, but lives lost will also generate bad press and hurt economies. Finally, I suggest Sahelian policymakers experiment with new strategies, because it seems the answer to preventing hostage crises lies in approaches that incorporate various ideas.