Quick Thoughts on the Failed Hostage Rescue in Nigeria

Last May, two Europeans were kidnapped in Kebbi State in Northwestern Nigeria. News of the victims after their disappearance was always scanty – a video and other rumors purported to link the kidnapping to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or another Al Qaeda group, but the evidence of Al Qaeda’s involvement never seemed conclusive to me. Then, yesterday, tragic news broke that the two men had died during a failed rescue attempt in Sokoto (Sokoto State borders Kebbi State). That attempt was apparently led by British special forces.

When the news broke, speculation began immediately that the rebel sect Boko Haram was behind the kidnappings. Many also see the kidnapping as evidence of a tie between Boko Haram and AQIM. This would mark the first kidnapping in Nigeria where Boko Haram’s involvement was proven. Kidnapping Westerners is a frequent tactic of AQIM.

British officials have stated their belief that Boko Haram was indeed responsible for the kidnapping, and one official has suggested that AQIM was also part of the operation:

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, and a senior British government official said the kidnappers appeared to be from an al-Qaida-linked cell within Boko Haram, but not within the group’s main faction.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has also stated that Boko Haram was behind the kidnapping. Arrests of alleged Boko Haram members followed the gun battle during which the hostages died.

Excellent coverage of news surrounding the kidnapping has been provided by the BBC and by former BBC correspondent Andrew Walker at his blog.

I have only three thoughts to offer on this event. The first is that any doubts about whether it really was Boko Haram that kidnapped the Europeans – doubts that stem from the facts that Kebbi is far outside Boko Haram’s normal zone of operations, that Boko Haram never seems to have kidnapped a Westerner before, or that communications from the kidnappers never seemed to fit with the style of either Boko Haram or AQIM – may be swept aside as the narrative takes hold that this kidnapping was a Boko Haram operation, full stop. There are, indeed, many possible explanations that deserve consideration, ranging from the possibility that the kidnappers were opportunistic criminals to the possibility that they were copycats to the possibility that it was Boko Haram itself, or a splinter group. Those complexities, uncertainties, and nuances may now be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, the idea – or the reality (because I really don’t know) – that Boko Haram is kidnapping Westerners will play into larger narratives about what kind of threat the group poses to Nigeria and to the West. See one example here. If those narratives are built on shaky assumptions, they will skew outside understandings of the situation in Nigeria.

My second thought is more of a question: Are armed rescue attempts worth it? Armed rescues have succeeded elsewhere, but their recent record in the Sahel is one of tragedy. In that vein, this article from the BBC, “Italian anger at UK over rescue bid,” is worth reading.

And my final thought is that the deaths of these Europeans bode ill for the German engineer kidnapped in Kano in January. He was kidnapped the day that I left that city, and he has been in my thoughts. I hope that he is alright, and that he will be free soon. But yesterday’s events cast a shadow over his captivity.

5 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts on the Failed Hostage Rescue in Nigeria

  1. I’m interested in what circumstances led to the rescue attempt and why the Italian government apparently wasn’t informed beforehand.

  2. A few points.

    1. We don’t really know what or who constitute BH or AQIM. Speculating isn’t helpful. People from the Maghreb and the Sahel have been interacting for at least one millenium.
    2. Any part of Nigeria where the lingua franca is Hausa (a wide swathe of the North) should be regarded as a BH area of operation. A few months ago, Kano was considered to be outside their areas of operation, today it is not. Please remember that Boko Haram (or somebody) threatened to have a go at the Sultan of Sokoto. Clearly Sokoto is within their sights and to brush that away will be the worst kind of self delusion.
    3. I feel very bad for the German engineer captured in Kano. I also feel for young Christian men and women posted to Northern Nigeria for their NYSC. Several have been beheaded, burnt alive, tortured and crippled, but of course their plight is of zero interest to the Western media.

  3. Pingback: Quick Thoughts on the Failed Hostage Rescue in Nigeria « al-Wasat – الوسط

  4. Forgot to add that this rescue operation is not playing well on the streets of Nigerian cities. Firstly, the British government and the average Briton doesn’t tend to be bothered when Nigerians are penciled for elimination by Shell and Nigerian government agencies.

    Secondly, the Nigerian government has never dedicated a 100 soldiers to save a single Nigerian hostage, so people are wondering why the same Nigerian government that barely bats an eyelid when thousands of Nigerian citizens are slaughtered is so concerned about the fate of two foreigners.

    Thirdly, the issue of sovereignty comes in, the role of the Nigerian government or Nigerian security forces in this operation doesn’t seem to be that relevant. The impression given by Cameron is that he ordered this operation and that Jonathan was merely a bystander.

    Sad to say this, but many Nigerians are glad this operation failed and the hostages were killed. The reasoning is that it will make Britain less enthusiastic about interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state (and a former British colony for that matter). It will also not play well in the largely Muslim far North.

    • Failure isn’t necessarily the best thing for strict sovereignty, especially depending on exactly what led to the deaths of the hostages. I would give everything I own to be able to watch discussions between Nigerian and U.K. officials in the near future.

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