Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Niger Abductions Draw France, EU into Northwest African Conflict

James M. Dorsey

World Politics Review

Last week's brazen kidnapping of seven foreigners, including five Frenchmen, by al-Qaida-linked militants in a uranium mining town in Niger has increased pressure on both France and the European Union to become more militarily involved in the region's fight against jihadists. The kidnapping threatens France's major source of uranium for its nuclear power plants, calls into question the practice by some European governments of paying ransoms to free hostages, and throws down the gauntlet for the EU in its counterterrorism efforts.

In response to the abductions, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and seven of his European counterparts urged EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to increase EU engagement in security and development in the Sahel, one of the world's poorest regions, arguing that the "populations there must have . . . another perspective than that offered by terrorists." Now, France has reportedly deployed 80 troops, including anti-terror and special operations forces, as well as reconnaissance aircraft to Niamey to support efforts to locate the abductees.

France and Spain have already found themselves increasingly drawn into the conflict in the Sahel due to a spate of kidnappings of their nationals by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida's northwest African affiliate that operates primarily in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

With no claim of responsibility issued yet, it remains unclear whether the seven, who worked for both the French state-owned nuclear company Areva and a subsidiary of the French contractor Vinci, were abducted by the militants themselves or by Tuareg tribesmen cooperating with the jihadists. A Tuareg leader denied involvement despite Niger government claims that the kidnappers were heard speaking Tamachek, a Tuareg language. Kouchner said the tribesmen may have kidnapped the foreigners to sell them to AQIM.

The kidnappings are the first to strike directly at foreign economic interests. Earlier incidents targeted primarily aid workers and tourists, and were designed to fill AQIM's coffers with the proceeds of ransom payments. Avera's Niger operations produce half of the uranium used in French nuclear reactors. The company employs 2,500 people at the Cominak and Somair uranium mines, as well as at the Imouraren mine still under development. Imouaren, expected to become Africa's biggest uranium mine, will make impoverished Niger the world's second-largest uranium producer when it is brought online in 2014.

Last week's abductions threaten those ambitions. Over the weekend, Avera and Vinci began evacuating foreign nationals from Arlit, the town from which the seven were abducted while asleep in their homes, as well as from other areas threatened by AQIM and rebel tribesmen. The kidnappings also mark a milestone in AQIM operations as they are the first against a hardened target: Arlit is protected by some 350 Nigerien troops, and located in an area in which the militants had not been active. The abductions also constitute a setback for Avera's efforts to reduce widespread local resistance to its operations. Local NGOs and tribesmen accuse the company of bribing Tuareg rebels, polluting underground aquifers, aggravating a chronic water shortage, and exposing its employees to uranium contamination.

Nigerien military officials believe the seven hostages were moved to Mali, where past hostages have been held. Nigerien pilots spotted three vehicles, which they believe were transporting the hostages, moving at high speed toward the Malian border. Mauritanian forces assisted by French reconnaissance have launched an offensive in the area to clear the militants and drug dealers from what is currently a no-man's land. Algerian military officials and local sources say the Mauritanians are encountering stiff resistance from an AQIM field commander, Abdelhamid (Hamidu) Abu Zaid, described as radical and inflexible.

The fate of the seven hostages is likely to depend on which of AQIM's rival commanders controls them. In July, a joint French-Mauritanian military operation -- the first against AQIM known to involve Western combat troops -- failed to liberate 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau, who was subsequently killed by the militants. Malian negotiators say the hostages are at greater risk if Abu Zaid, who is believed to be responsible for Germaneau's death as well as for last year's killing of British hostage Edwin Dyer, gains control of them. By contrast, AQIM's leader in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has emerged in past negotiations as a less dogmatic dealmaker, willing to free hostages in return for a ransom and the release of jailed militants.

AQIM released two Spanish hostages shortly after July's failed military operation in a prisoner exchange with Mauritania that is believed to have also involved a payment of $5 million in ransom to the militants. In a statement, the jihadists said the release of the Spaniards demonstrated that they were still open for business. AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droudkel suggested that the group would test whether the killing of Germeneau in retaliation for the July raid had caused France to reconsider its approach.

Earlier this year, France had acquiesced to the release of French hostage Pierre Camette in exchange for the liberation of jailed militants in Mali. In the aftermath of the July raid, Droudkel warned that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had opened "the gates of hell on himself, his people and his nation." In response, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared his country at war with AQIM, and the French Foreign Ministry said that France's military forces were "fully mobilized" to counter "threats uttered by assassins."

Last week's abductions could escalate French and EU involvement in what is increasingly becoming not just an African but also a European problem. They are also likely to strengthen opposition to the paying of ransoms, which serve to embolden the militants while ensuring that they are able to fund further operations.

A 2008 French defense white paper (.pdf) identified the mineral- and oil-rich Sahel as one of four regions crucial to French national security. At the same time, the document and subsequent French defense planning called for reducing the number of France's African bases from four to three. Speaking after the abductions, Sarkozy warned that "the Sahel zone is extremely dangerous. . . . [This] shows that we must redouble vigilance." The recent developments could also lead France to redouble -- or at least maintain -- its presence there, too.

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