Kidnapping has become a lucrative business for al-Qaeda’s north African branch, experts said on Tuesday after a French national and three Spaniards were abducted in the Sahel within days of each other.
The kidnapping of Frenchman Pierre Camatte in northern Mali last week and the abduction of the Spanish aid workers on Sunday have both been attributed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), even though it has not yet claimed responsibility.
In the last year, kidnappings “have multiplied, and the situation has continuously deteriorated in the last five years,” Alain Antil, a researcher for the French Institute on International Relations (IFRI) said.
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb needs money (…) Other groups can snatch Westerners for them and hand them over. You get the impression it’s becoming a business in the [Sahel] region,” Antil explained.
AQIM “has grave financial problems and these kidnappings show a push to resolve this,” French al-Qaeda specialist Jean-Pierre Filiu of the Paris Institute for Political Studies said.
“In times of difficulty [al-Qaeda’s north African branch] becomes dangerous,” added the author of several books on Islamist extremism.
According to the coordinator of counterterrorism at the United States State Department, Daniel Benjamin, AQIM “is financially strapped, particularly in Algeria, and unable to reach its recruiting goals”. Benjamin said it was reliant on kidnapping Westerners.
AQIM have targeted tourists as well as aid workers.
In February 2008, two Austrian tourists were kidnapped by AQIM in Tunisia, who took them to northern Mali and released them after eight months. In December of the same year two Canadian diplomats were seized in Niger by a group that claims links with al-Qaeda.
They were soon joined by four European tourists — two Swiss, a German and a Briton — abducted in the border region between Mali and Niger in January.
The Canadian diplomats, the Swiss hostages and the German were released over the following months, but in June AQIM put a message on a website saying it has killed the Briton, Edwin Dyer.
Ransoms are believed to have been paid and deals struck to release jailed militants, though most of the governments involved vehemently deny entering into an deals.
Observers say the killing of the British hostage was because London had refused to give in to the kidnappers demands to release an Islamic militant jailed in Britain.
In the Austrians’ case, local media in Austria quoted sources saying a ransom of between €2-million and €3-million was paid but stressed that Vienna had not paid any money directly to the kidnappers.
Likewise, Canadian media reported that the Malian authorities paid several million dollars to ensure the release of the Canadians. Canada denies paying a ransom, but critics point to the fact that Canadian aid to Mali has more than quadrupled since.
Last September, Algerian President Abelaziz Bouteflika pleaded before the United Nations General Assembly for a ban on paying ransoms to kidnappers, which he said had reached “worrying proportions”.
According to the Algerian leader “ransoms are now the principal source of finance for terrorism”.
However, anti-drug investigators believe the recent discovery of a burnt-out Boeing airliner in the Malian desert that the UN says transported cocaine from Venezuela demonstrates a link between organised crime gangs and the Islamist militants. — AFP