Last week’s kidnapping of five French nationals in northern Niger by an Al Qaeda affiliate is likely to be a watershed in regional and international efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel.
The kidnapping also threatens to open a rift between European Union members about how to confront the threat to foreign nationals in northern Africa. In an apparent about face following a failed French-Mauritanian attack in July on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Al Qaeda affiliate, and the subsequent murder of a French hostage, France has signaled that it is willing to negotiate with the kidnappers of five employees of state-owned Avera, the world’s largest operator of nuclear plants. The apparent reversal of French policy has sparked criticism from Britain as well as Algeria.
Speaking at the United Nations, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that paying ransom to hostage takers would only encourage more abductions and killings of foreign nationals. Hague’s remarks constituted not only a shot across the bow of France but also criticism of Spain which is believed to have paid AQIM up to Euros 8 million earlier this year for the release of three Spanish aid workers.
Algerian President Abdelazi Bouteflika for counter terrorism, Mohamed Kamel Rezag Bara, told the UN this week that AQIM had earned $25 million from ransoms in the past two years, making it wealthier than its parent. The UN Security Council on Monday issued a statement expressing concern about the rising number of kidnappings and reminding UN members of their duty to prevent the financing of terrorist acts. Analysts note that various international conventions and Security Council resolutions implicitly ban ransom payments, but do not do so explicitly. The African Union last year called for the criminalization of the payment of ransoms, a call that is likely to find enhanced support in the wake of the abductions in Niger.
Analysts say further that the resolution of the French hostage crisis is likely to determine the future of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Tension, they say, could drop if France achieves a negotiated release of the French captives. Military action or the assassination of the hostages by their abductors would, however, likely lead to a more sustained series of clashes with regional and possibly French-led forces in the Sahel.