Amidst rumors and anonymous sources, I often have trouble piecing together what’s going with hostage transactions involving Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but this post is an attempt to do so. In September 2010, AQIM claimed the kidnapping of seven people in northern Niger – five French nationals, one Togolese, and one Malagasy – who worked for Areva, a French mining company. In February, AQIM released a French woman and her two African comrades, reportedly for a ransom. The four remaining French citizens remain in AQIM’s grasp, probably in northern Mali. Negotiations are going on now to free them. Before talking about the present, though, here’s a little background:
Hostage negotiations with AQIM often proceed through local – ie, Malian and Nigerien, negotiators – and this case is no different. Sources close to these persons sometimes talk to the international press, giving us a partial, but still murky, view of what goes on. Regarding the release in February, AFP (previous link) has only this:
A source said a ransom had been paid but declined to disclose the amount.
“We were able to convince the abductors that the release is not (Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s) business, but theirs,” said the source, close to Malian and Nigerien mediators involved in negotiations for the trio’s release.
Ennahar, relying on the views of Algerian expert Mohamed Mokeddem, give us a little more speculation about the negotiations process. Mokeddem says that AQIM leaders released the first three hostages to improve their bargaining position (by offering up “less valuable” prisoners, they increase the value of the remaining hostages and prolong the negotiations process, is how I think this logic runs). He adds that the attempted armed rescue of two Frenchmen kidnapped in a different incident in Niger in January has also changed the calculus on both sides, giving AQIM more reasons to negotiate and giving France an incentive to resolve the problem smoothly, and well in advance of the 2012 elections. Just to emphasize, all this is mostly speculative and I cannot vouch for its accuracy. It’s just one expert’s view.
That brings us to the present. We are getting two key pieces of information: first, the amount AQIM is allegedly demanding and second, the fact that someone is leaking this amount to the international press. AFP:
“The kidnappers are demanding at least 90 million euros (128 million dollars) to release the four French hostages still being held,” said the Niger source close to talks taking place in northern Mali.
“They also want the release of AQIM prisoners taken in several countries, including France,” the source said.
“I can tell you that everyone is mobilised to obtain the release of the hostages,” the source added.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has already publicly refused.
“We do not negotiate on these terms,” said Juppe, who was attending a regular meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels.
The kidnappers made the demand within the past few days, a Nigerien military intelligence source said. A source close to the French nuclear group Areva confirmed the ransom demand.
French government sources declined to confirm whether the government had received a ransom demand. One source said any such demand would be “ridiculously extravagant.”
I would think that public discussion of private negotiations complicates the bargaining process even further. There are many actors involved already: the governments of France, Niger, and Mali; local mediators; Areva; and lastly AQIM. Now the international press will play some role as well, acting as a conduit for both official statements and unofficial rumors.
Whether that strengthens one side or undermines negotiations I can’t say, though my suspicion is that since negotiations have come this far (securing the release of three hostages, and getting deep into discussions regarding the other four), they will probably continue, and could well result in a ransom payment for the remaining captives. One motive for the leak, indeed, may be that the final payment (whose amount will likely never be confirmed) will be much lower, allowing those who pay to say that they negotiated hard and gave AQIM much less than what it wanted. The leak makes AQIM look foolish – not only evil, but unrealistic as well. That could help move negotiations to more realistic numbers.
However, anything is possible and I’m likely foolish for making predictions based on anonymous sources: after all, we could see another French rescue attempt or a breakdown in negotiations. I’ll have more as this story develops.