In a chilling Web message discovered by cyber counter-terror experts Wednesday, al Qaeda’s North African branch said the group had “executed” a British hostage captured on the Niger-Mali border.
Edwin Dyer was killed Sunday, May 31, the message said, after the British government failed to meet the conditions set for his release.
“We inform our Muslim brothers and the public opinion that we executed the British prisoner Edwen Dyer, Sunday, May 31, 2009, at 7:30 p.m. local time,” the message read.
The statement, which was written in Arabic, was signed by “the press and information office of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” and dated Tuesday, June 2. There was no mention of the location from where the statement was released.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and is known in intelligence circles by the acronym AQIM.
Reacting to the news Wednesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the “appalling and barbaric act of terrorism” and offered condolences to Dyer’s family and “the whole country”.
Dyer was captured along with three other Europeans on Jan. 22 while returning from the Anderamboukane festival on nomad culture in the border region between Mali and Niger. Two of the hostages, a German and a Swiss national, were released in April in northern Mali.
There were conflicting reports about whether the group was seized inside Mali or Niger. The border runs through a harsh Saharan desert region where Malian authorities have been fighting Tuareg rebels.
From “the middle of nowhere”
Shortly after Dyer was captured, AQIM issued a statement threatening to kill Dyer if the British government did not release Abu Qatada, a radical preacher being held in Britain, within 20 days. The deadline was later extended to May 31.
In recent years, the group’s postings on jihadist websites have been increasing, according to cyber counter-terror experts.
“Just because they are in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean they cannot get their message out,” said James Brandon, senior research fellow at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which studies extremist movements.
An Islamist militia that has threatened to attack French, Algerian as well as US interests in the past, AQIM was formed when the Algerian extremist group, the GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) publicly claimed allegiance to al Qaeda.
While the group’s roots lie in Algeria, their area of operation these days, according to security experts, is in the inhospitable Sahel region, which stretches from the semi-arid regions of Senegal and extends through parts of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Seeking Qatada’s release
In the past, the group has publicly issued demands for the release of various Muslim prisoners in Western detention in exchange for captured tourists. But experts say the group is willing to negotiate ransom sums for their captives’ releases.
The group’s call for Abu Qatada’s release does not surprise Brandon. “I guess they were looking for something to pin down to the British government,” says Brandon.
Qatada, a Jordanian-born Islamist, has been held in Britain since 2005 and is wanted in Jordan in connection with an alleged conspiracy to bomb hotels in the capital of Amman.
Qatada has denied involvement, however, and has repeatedly appealed British court rulings to extradite him to Jordan. According to Brandon, there have been several postings of Qatada’s statements on jihadist Web sites in recent months. The postings, according to Brandon, deal with a range of issues including the 2008 Gaza offensive and the conditions of his detention.
The British Prison Service, however, has denied that Qatada was issuing edicts from his high-security jail in Worcestershire.