ATbar The kidnapping of French hostages in Niger (September 2010) and the death of Bin Laden
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The kidnapping of French hostages in Niger (September 2010) and the death of Bin Laden

01/08/2011 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

On May 2, 2011 American special forces killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan but the war of France against Al Qaeda and mainly its branch in North Africa (AQIM) is not over. France joined other allies of the United States in hailing the death of Osama bin Laden but its relief at the terrorist's death was mixed with concern for French hostages held by al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic organizations.

The AQIM demanding at least 90 million euros in ransom for the release of the four French hostages: " They also want the release of AQIM prisoners taken in several countries, including France," said a Niger source close to talks taking place in northern Mali.[1]

Speaking to the government-run TV channel France 2, Prime Minister Francois Fillon could give no clear picture over the hostages' fate after bin Laden's death. "Nobody can today tell us about the eventual repercussions of (bin Laden's death) on the hostages' situation," he said. Instead, Fillon asked French citizens to avoid "risk areas," particularly in the Sahel region of North Africa, where the four remaining French hostages are being held by AQIM.[2]

In July 2010, France has declared war on al-Qaeda, and matched its fighting words with a first attack on a camp of the AQIM, after the terror network killed a French aid worker it took hostage in April 2010 : "We are at war with al-Qaeda," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the death of 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau.[3] The declaration and attack marked a shift in strategy for France, usually discrete about its behind-the-scenes battle against terrorism.

There are several factors that made France a high priority target of Al Qaeda:

  • France has about 3,850 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission fighting the Taliban.
  • France provides military ,economic and political support to the "secular" regimes in the Maghreb and Sahel regions.
  • The French Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by AQIM.

France has eight hostages held across the world, four held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Niger, three in Yemen, and one in Somalia. Two French journalists were freed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in June 29, 2011.

Al Qaeda of the Maghreb – AQIM

The roots of the specific threat to France from AQIM can be dated to France's support for the 1992 military coup in Algeria pre-empting the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (an Islamist party). This led to a vicious civil war in Algeria between the military dictatorship and various militant Islamist groups. One of these groups organized against both France and the Algerian military government was one styling itself the "Salafist Group for Call and Combat". In 2007, this group renamed itself "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb". As a new Al Qaeda "franchise," AQMI retains its functional independence but potentially benefits from funding and training from the broader Al Qaeda network. The roots of the specific threat to France from AQMI can be dated to France's support for the 1992 military coup in Algeria pre-empting the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (an Islamist party). This led to a vicious civil war in Algeria between the military dictatorship and various militant Islamist groups. One of these groups organized against both France and the Algerian military government was one styling itself the "Salafist Group for Call and Combat". In 2007, this group renamed itself "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb". As a new Al Qaeda "franchise," AQMI retains its functional independence but potentially benefits from funding and training from the broader Al Qaeda network. The roots of the specific threat to France from AQMI can be dated to France's support for the 1992 military coup in Algeria pre-empting the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (an Islamist party). This led to a vicious civil war in Algeria between the military dictatorship and various militant Islamist groups. One of these groups organized against both France and the Algerian military government was one styling itself the "Salafist Group for Call and Combat". In 2007, this group renamed itself "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb". As a new Al Qaeda "franchise," AQMI retains its functional independence but potentially benefits from funding and training from the broader Al Qaeda network. The roots of the specific threat to France from AQMI can be dated to France's support for the 1992 military coup in Algeria pre-empting the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (an Islamist party). This led to a vicious civil war in Algeria between the military dictatorship and various militant Islamist groups. One of these groups organized against both France and the Algerian military government was one styling itself the "Salafist Group for Call and Combat". In 2007, this group renamed itself "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb". As a new Al Qaeda "franchise," AQMI retains its functional independence but potentially benefits from funding and training from the broader Al Qaeda network.

The kidnapping of French workers in Niger (September 16, 2010)

On September 16, 2010, gunmen kidnapped five French nationals and two Africans (one from Madagascar and one from Togo), in the town of Arlit in northern Niger. The men, who were snatched from their homes in the remote desert north of the country, work for France's state-owned nuclear giant Areva and a subsidiary of the French construction company Vinci.[4]

The hostages include two employees of the French nuclear energy firm Areva and five with the French construction company Vinci. The attackers entered the town at around 2 a.m. and made their way through streets patrolled by 350 soldiers, and past the gate to the VIP residential area where the foreign employees of the nuclear company live. Both the gate and each of the houses where the employees lived was guarded by security personnel. [5] Officials say they believe the kidnappers took the hostages to mountainous area in neighboring Mali.[6]

On September 23, 2010, the militant group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping:

AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed has warned the French government against any sort of "stupidity". "In announcing our claim for this operation, we inform the French government that the mujahideen will later transmit their legitimate demands," said Mohammed on the tape. "Despite the high military preparations in the area and the security belt around it, those lions of Islam were able to break in and kidnap five nuclear experts who work for Areva," the message said. "So we claim our responsibility to this blessed operation and we tell the French government that our fighters will deliver their lawful demands to them." The message noted that the Niger region "is one of the world's most important uranium producing areas" and that France has stolen the "strategic resource for decades." "We want to remind our Muslim brothers and public opinion that the uranium thieves caused the killing of thousands of poor Muslims in the area and abusing them in those mines and exposing them to dangerous radiation from radon gas while denying them any protection or health care," the message said. "The crusaders' companies who steal our resources and abuse our sons should know that the fighters' goals are lawful and they must leave. The message was posted on Islamists websites that have carried messages from al Qaeda in the Maghreb in the past.

On October 1, 2010, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television station aired, the pictures of the seven French and African hostages sitting on the ground with armed men behind them.

Areva's uranium mining operations in Niger are of crucial importance to the local economy, and to France. About half of France's nuclear energy derives from Niger's huge uranium deposits, and French uranium trade accounts for about 75% of revenue in Niger, whose per capita annual income is just $353.[7] .

Areva had ample warning of an al-Qaeda attack. Two weeks before the kidnapping, a local police commander in northern Niger faxed a letter to French companies in the area, warning them that al-Qaeda seemed to be planning an assault on foreign workers.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said that France plans to "mobilize all of its state agencies" to free the people…the president considers this a very serious affair," spokesman Luc Chatel told reporters .

France has sent a military intelligence unit to the region, but has said it wants to open communication with the militants in hopes of freeing the five French nationals and two Africans. A source close to the Niger government said that around 100 French specialists in anti-terrorism had arrived in Niger to help hunt for the hostages.

AQIM on November 18 , 2010 urged France to negotiate the fate of the captives with Osama Bin Laden directly, but Paris rejected this demand, stating that its foreign policy would not be dictated from outside.[8]

On February 25, 2011, three of the hostages from France, Madagascar and Togo held captive by AQIM since September 2011 have been released. One of the freed hostages, Frenchwoman Francoise Larribe, was suffering from cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatment shortly before she was abducted.[9] The details of how they were freed were unclear but a source said earlier a ransom had been paid, declining to disclose the amount.[10]

On March 2011, AQIM has demanded at least 90 million euros for the release of four French hostages still being held. They are also demanded the release of prisoners of AQIM arrested in several countries including France, said a source close to the Nigerian mediation encountered in northern Mali.[11]

Other sources close to the mediation, including Malians and Nigerian have also spoke about a ransom and release of AQIM prisoners in return for the release of the French hostages. These members of AQIM would be in jail "in France and in countries of the Sahel", said the source.[12]

The head of French diplomacy Alain Juppe rejected the ransom demand. "We do not negotiate on these bases," he told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels.

Al-Qaeda's leadership inside Pakistan rarely championed kidnappings publicly and was not known previously to widely support its use as a funding source. The group historically relied on donations through a pipeline of couriers and money-changing operations. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the network took in as much as $30 million annually, but that money flow has tightened. CIA drone attacks, combined with economic penalties by the U.S. and its allies, have cut into that stream. At the same time, al-Qaeda affiliates like AQIM have shown that abductions could rake in millions of dollars. As a result, attitudes about ransom operations inside the core group changed.[13]

On April 25, 2011, Al-Qaeda's North African arm (AQIM) has released a video showing four French nuclear workers (Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Furrer), kidnapped last year (2010) in Niger, urging France to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. Over the photos is recorded an audio track that appears to be the men reading a prepared statement: [14] "We urge the president of the French republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, to respond positively to al-Qaeda's demand he withdraw French troops from Afghanistan, as the French have really no interest in the war in Afghanistan," they say.

Three hundred days after their abduction, the fate of French hostages kidnapped in Niger remains unknown. To remind people of their ongoing plight, their families on July 12, 2011 launched a joint call for "effective initiatives". [15]

"We fear the danger of the duration of such detention in conditions that pose risks to their health," wrote the families of Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dole, Marc Feret and Pierre Legrand in a letter distributed by Ouest-France. [16]

"Why this total silence and why is it not possible to establish a comfort link between the hostages and their families as it happens with prisoners' families?" they wondered. [17]

The kidnapping and assassination of two French workers in Niger (January 6, 2011)

On January 6, 2011, two Frenchmen Antoine de Leocour, an aid worker in Niger, and his friend Vincent Delory, both aged 25, were kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey the Niger capital. Reportedly they were kidnapped at gunpoint by four armed men wearing turbans who tried to take them into Mali.

The hostages were pursued by Niger’s military, with French military help, and were intercepted at the border with Mali. After a firefight, the hostages were found dead. The French defense minister, Alain Juppé, said in a statement:[18]

“The terrorists were intercepted at the Mali border and several of them were neutralized. After the fighting , the two hostages were found dead.” Mr. Juppé said that the operation was “coordinated” by French forces based in the region that participated in the firefight at the border.

A French military spokesman, Thierry Burkhard, said that Niger’s national guard and a French surveillance plane pursued the kidnappers into the desert. Reports suggest that, some 100km from Niamey, the troops mounted an attack which resulted in one Niger commander being injured. A second attack followed shortly afterwards, when soldiers and French commandos intervened to prevent the kidnappers crossing the Malian border. Three Nigerian soldiers were killed, two French soldiers were injured and four militants were killed ,the French military spokesman said.[19]

An audio message attributed to AQIM was sent to Reuters news agency and broadcast on the television channel al-Jazeera.. In the audio AQIM spokesman said: "A group of mujahideen carried out on Friday 7 January a brave operation in the heart of the Niger capital Niamey, where they broke into the secured diplomatic neighborhood and succeeded in kidnapping two Frenchmen," it said. "Two battles took place between the mujahideen and French-Niger forces, resulting in a major failure in the attempt to rescue the hostages."[20] He claimed that two French special forces members were killed and that 25 Niger officers were injured.[21]

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said he learned with “profound sadness” of the Frenchmen’s deaths, and condemned the kidnapping and deaths of the two hostages as “a barbaric and cowardly act”. [22]

Summary and conclusions

France has to respond to challenges of Al Qaeda and AQIM in the Maghreb and Sahel regions. In response to Ben Laden's and AQIM threats, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has said his nation remains undaunted in its role to help stabilize Afghanistan and French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said that "We are determined to continue our efforts on behalf of the Afghan people, with our allies."

France has had a long history of struggle with various forms of terrorism and over the past decade has achieved particular success against Algerian Islamic terrorist groups - the GIA and GSPC - with close links to Al-Qaeda.

AQIM's growing presence in the Sahel region and the increasing number of abductions of European tourists in Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia and Mali show that a profitable kidnapping industry has led to an increase in terrorism activity in this region. AQIM's activities were previously based along Algeria's Mediterranean coast, but security crackdowns by the Algerian military have forced the group into the largely ungoverned Sahara desert area of Mali, and along Algeria's northern border. Owing to the weakness of these states and their ineffective control of the area, AQIM militants are free to move across borders and to establish their bases in the region. This situation enables AQIM to combine its ideological goals with a series of tactical advantages. AQIM relies on local communities of the Sahara for sanctuary. This lucrative business profits local criminal gangs, which have become almost natural allies of AQIM in the region.

The terrorist threat in the Sahel has become one of France’s biggest foreign policy preoccupations in the past year: President Sarkozy has spoken of the country being “at war” in the region. President Sarkozy has made clear that France's determination to fight terrorism remains intact. The French declaration of war against Al Qaeda and the raids in Mali (July 2010) and Niger ( January 2011), marked a shift in strategy for France, which is usually discreet about its military co-operation with its regional allies - Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria.

The failed raids in Mali and Niger, can be considered as first steps in a new strategy, at list of France, with direct involvement in military operations against the AQIM infrastructure in the region. On the other hand France maintained the option of indirect negotiations with the terrorists in case that there is no military option to release the French hostages.

To protect the French hostages in Niger, the French government has declined to give details on the negotiations with AQIM. Formally France has refused to pay ransoms or bow to AQIM conditions. "We are extremely careful because it can be favorable or unfavorable elements according to the immediate reactions," Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told French news channel BFM TV. "The death of bin Laden is a little hope and a positive factor for the internal Afghans' debate but I think the contrary concerning AQIM. In the Sahel region, they don't have the same logic as the Pakistani-Afghan one. They will continue their policy of blackmail and pressure," the minister said.[23]

Al-Qaeda was not known for kidnapping for ransom money in the past to fund its activities. The organisation seemed able to obtain the funds it needed through donations from supporters in the Gulf region or through charities that apportioned part of what they collected, legally or illegally, to al-Qaeda. Pressured by increased scrutiny of terrorist money sources and strikes aimed at its financiers, al-Qaeda's core organization in Pakistan has turned to kidnapping for ransom to offset dwindling cash reserves. Kidnapping seems to be an integral part of al-Qaeda's policy among branches in North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM)' Al Qaeda in the Arab Penninsula (AQAP) and Iraq (The Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). Apparently those branches resort to kidnapping as a means of financing their activities, despite indications that such a policy is causing a public backlash and damages al-Qaeda's "reputation".

Experts from the CIA's National Counterterrorism Center, the Treasury Department and the FBI and military are trying to learn from the recovered files from Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad about al-Qaeda's money sources and the impact of bin Laden's death on the group's financial future. [24] Whether the lack of funds is caused by the U.S actions or supporters halting donations on their own, both conditions bode poorly for al-Qaeda and its new leadership, led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda's new leader will be expected to clarify his stance in the near future on kidnapping policies in the organisation's branches.


Notes

[1] Al Qaeda wants 90 million euro ransom for French hostages,Pakistan Today, July 31, 2011.

[2] Sonia Ounissi, Bin Laden's death provokes caution over French hostages in Niger, Xinhuanet.com, May 5, 2011. 

[3] France declares war against Al Qaeda ,CNSNEWS.COM ,July 27, 2010.

[4] Vivienne Walt, Kidnappings escalate France's desert war on Al Qaeda, Time, September 22, 2010.

[5] Rukmini Callimchi, Niger kidnappings show Al Qaeda group getting bolder ,The Christian Science Monitor, ,September 23, 2010.

[6] Rukmini Callimchi, Niger kidnappings show Al Qaeda group getting bolder ,The Christian Science Monitor, ,September 23, 2010.

[7] Vivienne Walt, Kidnappings escalate France's desert war on Al Qaeda, Time, September 22, 2010.

[8] Al Qaeda wants 90 million euro ransom for French hostages,Pakistan Today, July 31, 2011.

[9] Niger: French, Malagasy, Togolese hostages freed, allAfrica.com, February 25, 2011.

[10] Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatens France, MEMRI, a tape aired by Al Jazeera T.V, January 21, 2011.

[11] AQIM claimed 90 million euros to free hostages in Sahel, Ennahar Online, March 21, 2011.

[12] AQIM claimed 90 million euros to free hostages in Sahel, Ennahar Online, March 21, 2011.

[13] Bin Laden showed interest in kidnapping for ransom, seattlepi.com, June 19, 2011.

[14] Al Qaeda releases video of French hostages, Al Jazeera, April 27, 2011.

[15] Jemal Oumar, French hostage families renew calls for release, Magharebia, July 13, 2011.

[16] Jemal Oumar, French hostage families renew calls for release, Magharebia, July 13, 2011.

[17] Jemal Oumar, French hostage families renew calls for release, Magharebia, July 13, 2011.

[18] Two French hostages in Niger killed in rescue, BBC News, January 8, 2011.

[19] Ruadhan Mac Cormaic, French hostages killed in Niger after abduction, The Irish Times, January 10, 2011.

[20] Al Qaeda claims responsibility for Niger kidnappings, BBC News, January 13, 2011.

[21] Angela Donald, TV report: Al Qaeda arm claims responsibility for taking 2 Frenchmen hostages in Niger, Los Angeles Times ,January 13, 2011.

[22] Two French hostages in Niger killed in rescue, BBC News, January 8, 2011.

[23] Sonia Ounissi, Bin Laden's death provokes caution over French hostages in Niger, Xinhuanet.com, May 5, 2011.

[24] Bin Laden showed interest in kidnapping for ransom, seattlepi.com, June 19, 2011.