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Who is behind the kidnapping of French nuclear workers?

In a bid to rescue seven foreign nuclear workers abducted in Niger, French authorities are trying to determine whether the daring kidnapping operation is the work of a local Touareg rebel group or al Qaeda’s North African branch.


Under the cover of darkness overnight Wednesday to Thursday, a group of armed men eluded security checks before snatching a French employee of nuclear firm Areva and his wife. They then proceeded to seize five more workers of another French company, Sogea Satom, before making off discreetly from the supposedly secure uranium mining town of Arlit, 1,000 kilometres north of the Nigerien capital Niamey.

Identifying the group behind the kidnapping is now the most urgent task facing French and Nigerien authorities. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the abduction. The fate of the hostages could be completely different depending on whether they were kidnapped by local Touareg rebels or by al Qaeda’s North African affiliates.

The fact that a group of kidnappers managed to penetrate two layers of security – the Nigerien military controls the area’s entries and exits while private security guards patrol the expatriates’ living quarters – point to well-organised operatives with local accomplices.

Touareg scenario

Local Touareg rebels have the know-how to kidnap expatriates, a tactic they have repeatedly used to put pressure on foreign mining companies operating in the uranium-rich region of north Niger. In July 2007, Touareg insurgents briefly snatched an executive with the Chinese uranium company China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Corporation. Rebels also kidnapped four French citizens in the Arlit region in June 2008, before releasing them to the Red Cross four days later.

In the case of a classic Touareg abduction, the odds are pretty good that the hostages will be released unharmed. Touareg rebels are widely considered as fighters engaged in a local struggle for autonomy – or mere robbery in the eyes of their opponents.

They have no history of murdering foreign hostages and French mining companies have a long tradition of dealing with hostile local tribesmen. The Nigerien government went as far as expelling a top Areva executive in July 2007, accusing the French firm of paying off Touareg rebels to discourage attacks on their mining infrastructure.

But French authorities have also raised the spectre of al Qaeda’s involvement in the Arlit abduction. In an interview on Europe 1 radio, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that he suspected the terror group’s local affiliates, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was “responsible” for the kidnapping.

Al Qaeda scenario

If AQIM managed to get its hands on the abducted foreigners, the hostages’ very survival is at stake. While the radical Islamist group has captured and released dozens of foreigners in the region, it vowed to “open the gates of hell” for France after Paris sent its commandos to Niger in July 2010 in a failed raid to free a French hostage. An AQIM desert camp was destroyed and seven extremists were killed in the joint French-Mauritanian operation.

Map showing AQIM's desert sanctuary
Map showing AQIM's desert sanctuary

But the 78 year-old hostage, Michel Germaneau, was subsequently executed and French Prime Minister François Fillon declared war on AQIM, making any perspective of future negotiations more distant than ever.

Direct AQIM involvement in the Arlit kidnapping would also mean a significant escalation against French interests in North Africa, increasing the chance of direct military retaliation from Paris. France draws nearly 80 percent of its electricity from its 58 nuclear power plants, which in turn rely heavily on uranium imports from Niger.

The possibilities of Touareg and AQIM involvements are not mutually exclusive as local armed groups in this lawless region have been known to sell Western hostages to radical Islamist groups. If that were the case, France would be locked in a race against time to make sure AQIM doesn’t get its hands on the hostages.

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