Two French security consultants being held hostage in Somalia are now both in the custody of the al Qaeda-inspired al Shabaab militant group and their kidnapping might be linked to France’s detention of Somali pirates earlier this year, a senior Somali official told FRANCE 24 on Friday.
The two Frenchmen were seized by insurgent-linked security forces from a hotel in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Tuesday and later split between al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, another Islamist group operating in the East African nation, according to Somali government sources.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 on Friday, Somali Social Affairs Minister Mohammed Ali Ibrahim said al Shabaab militants had forcibly taken custody of the other hostage from the rival Hizbul Islam group overnight.
The latest development could make negotiations more difficult, Ibrahim said, as al Shabaab is known to be “more extreme” than Hizbul Islam. “As long as they’re in the hands of al Shabaab, negotiations will be hard,” he said.
Ibrahim linked the kidnapping to the piracy problem that has threatened international shipping in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean.
While he said the militants’ demands were not yet clear, the seizure of the two French nationals was likely an act of revenge for the imprisonment of 15 Somali pirates, who were captured by the French navy in the Gulf of Aden.
“The main reason for the kidnapping is that some al Shabaab members have relatives imprisoned in France – Somali pirates,” Ibrahim said.
Money and publicity for militant groups
Somali officials have earlier indicated that the kidnappings were financially motivated. In an interview with Reuters Thursday, Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar said the abduction was “purely for monetary purposes”.
According to FRANCE 24’s Lucas Menget, who has reported extensively on Somalia, it’s becoming more complicated to decipher the motives of the many armed groups operating in the war-ravaged country. But money remains a likely motive, he said.
“These Islamist militias need huge amounts of money to function,” he said. “Kidnapping these two security agents brings publicity and money to mafia-type groups and terrorists inside Mogadishu.”
“All of these groups turn to banditry at some point to try and get some money,” he added.
One of the poorest and most violent countries in the world, Somalia has become a regional safe haven for both pirates and Islamist forces. Eighteen years of armed conflict between pro- and anti-government security forces, militant Islamist groups and local, clan-based militias have destabilized the country and destroyed its infrastructure.
Islamist groups now control the south and the centre of the country, as well as large parts of Mogadishu, and are aimed at overthrowing President Sheik Sharif Ahmed, who heads a beleaguered transitional government installed in January.
Ahmed remains inside his presidential palace under the protection of an African Union peacekeeping force. In June, the embattled Somali government launched an appeal to neighbouring countries to help Somalia fight the offensive from Islamist insurgents.
The United Nations says more than 200,000 Somalis have fled their homes in Mogadishu since renewed fighting broke out in early May.