Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Release of Spanish Hostages: Questions and Insights

This week’s release of two Spanish hostages by an Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa raises questions about the steadfastness of the refusal by Western nations to negotiate with terrorists. It also constitutes a victory for the group’s Algerian faction focused more on kidnapping of foreigners as a business than on achieving political goals.

In a statement to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Al Qaeda affiliate that operates primarily in Algeria, Mauritainia, Mali and Niger suggested that Spain had met its demand for payment of a $5 million ransom for the hostages. The Spanish government has declined to comment on whether it had cut a deal with the militants. The hostages were kidnapped in Mauritania in November while riding in a convoy delivering supplies to poor villages.

It became apparent that the two hostages, Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual, were about to be released after Mauritania last week threw the jihadists a bone by extraditing to Mali a key Malian AQIM operative, Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma. Hamma had been convicted to 12 years in prison for kidnapping the two Spaniards as well as Alicia Gomez, a third Spaniard who was released in March. His release had been part of AQIM’s demands.

Spain's ransom payment and Hamma's release would not be the first time European and West African authorities have entered into negotiations with AQIM. Mali released four Islamists earlier this year in an apparent swap for French hostage Pierre Camatte, freed by AQIM in February. The release soured its relations with Algeria, Mauritania and Niger who accused Mali of being soft on terrorism.

The group, which grew out of the Salafist movement in Algeria and has since shifted south into the vast and lawless Sahel, also killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after London refused to give in to its demands.

Analysts and Malian officials say Hamma’s release was as much designed to achieve the release of the remaining hostages as it was to deepen divisions within the Al Qaeda affiliate and complicate its relations with allied rebel Tuareg tribesmen. The Tuareg accuse the Malian government of failing to implement a 2008 agreement that was supposed to end their tribal insurgency and grant the Tuareg greater rights.

Relations between Al Qaeda and the Tuareg became strained last month when an AQIM commander, Abdelhamid (Hamidu) Abu Zaid, accused the Tuareg of assisting a French-Mauritainian attack that last month failed to liberate 78-year old French hostage Michel Germaneau and killed six jihadists. Abu Zaid charged that the Tuareg had pinpointed the whereabouts of the AQIM operatives. In retaliation, Abu Zaid abducted and killed Mirzag Ag El Housseini, a Tuareg customs officer whose brother is senior commander in the Malian army. In a statement, AQIM’s leader in Mauritania, Abu Anas al-Shanqiti, warned that his group would retaliate against the “traitorous apostates, children and agents of Christian France” who had cooperated in the raid. The French Foreign Ministry says its forces are “fully mobilized” to counter “threats uttered by assassins.”

Abu Zaid had been urging the commander of AQIM’s wing in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, under whose control the Spaniards were, to execute them in retaliation for the French-Mauritanian raid. Mali had been quietly negotiating the release of the Spanish hostages with Belmokhtar. Malian officials say that the extradition of Hamma enabled Belmokhtar to cut a deal and claim political success. Hamma’s extradition contrasts starkly with Mauritania’s participation in the French-led raid and its past refusal to negotiate with the jihadists.

In its statement, AQIM said the release of the hostages demonstrated to France that "it was possible to deal rationally with the Mujahedeen (Islamic fighters). It was possible to avoid the aggravation, irritation and anger that led to the killing of their national."

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