French spy held captive in Somalia pleads for release
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Three years after he was abducted in Somalia, French secret agent Denis Allex made a rare video appearance pleading with French President François Hollande for his release. Little is known about one of France’s murkiest hostage situations.
Looking pale and gaunt after three years of captivity, a French secret agent who was abducted in 2009 by Islamist militants in Somalia issued an emotional plea to French President François Hollande to secure his release, in a videotaped statement posted on jihadist forums this week.
The slickly produced video clip titled “Message to François Hollande” features a bearded Denis Allex reading out a statement in his native French. The four-minute video also offers English subtitles.
“I record this message, which I direct to you personally in the month of July 2012, 3 years after my abduction, 3 years away from my family, my wife and my children; 3 years of solitude,” reads the English transcript of his statement.
A graphic credit at the end of the video features the imprint “Al-Kataib”– the media arm of the Somali al Shabaab Islamist movement – and is dated August 2012.
But the four-minute clip was only released Thursday by SITE, a US-based private service that monitors extremist websites.
The video was apparently shot to coincide with Hollande's assumption of the French presidency following his May 2012 election victory over then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
It is not clear why the tape took so long to surface.
When questioned by FRANCE 24, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on whether French intelligence was aware of the existence of the video over the past few months.
"In these situations, which are particularly complex, we must be very discreet in the interest of our hostages, and in the interest of Denis Allex," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.
Speaking Friday at a press conference in Paris, Lalliot said the video was in the process of authentication and he stressed that the French government was doing its best to secure the release of the captured Frenchman.
According to Adam Raisman, a senior analyst at SITE, there’s often a time lag between production and release dates of jihadist media messages.
“Al Shabaab often produces media that it’s not able to release as soon as it would like,” said Raisman in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “Some audio messages can be posted immediately, but video messages can take longer. Dates marked on videos are also difficult to ascertain.”
A murky case of captivity
It’s just one of many details that have been difficult to confirm in a shadowy case that, more than three years later, continues to generate more questions than answers.
French authorities – including France’s external intelligence agency the DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security) – have been tight-lipped about the issue.
In a country where hostages – such as the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt – can become household names with giant banners draped on public buildings demanding their release, Allex’s captivity has generated little public attention.
Even his captors – the group al Shabaab, linked to al Qaeda and a particularly prolific communicator on jihadist forums – have been relatively silent about their French hostage.
“There have been only two videos of Denis Allex since he was captured,” said Raisman. “One video was released in June 2010 and the second one was released on Thursday. Between those dates, there have been no communiqués, no messages about him.”
A suspicious escape
The circumstances surrounding Allex’s capture have been also been murky.
Allex - along with another French secret agent, Marc Aubriere – was seized on July 14, 2009 from a hotel in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
At that time, the two men were identified as security consultants posing as journalists. The pair was purportedly in Somalia to train troops from the UN-backed interim government, which was then battling al Shabaab and other Islamist rebels.
The two were believed to have been separated during a gun battle between al Shabaab and another Islamist group, Hizbul Islam.
A month later, Aubriere got away from his Hizbul Islam captors. In an interview with the BBC’s Somali service, Aubriere said he managed to slip out at midnight while the guards were asleep.
But many Somalis found it hard to believe Aubriere’s version of events – including the assertion that he walked through a dangerous city like Mogadishu unharmed and unnoticed for five hours.
French officials, however, categorically denied that any ransom was paid for Aubriere’s release.
Not a favourable time for negotiations
In the statement released Thursday, Allex said he hoped Hollande’s “handling of my case will be different from that of President Sarkozy and his government," before blaming his detention on France's policies toward Islam.
“The door to negotiations are still open if you are sincere and honest,” said Allex. “It is your duty towards me, since I was taken hostage whilst working for France.”
But according to Roland Marchal, a leading Somalia expert at the Paris-based CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) it’s a particularly difficult time to try and secure the release of al Shabaab captives.
"Al Shabaab have lost ground, their organization has weakened. The frontline is moving and communication channels are tricky,” said Marchal. “All this means the climate is not very favourable for negotiations.”
Over the past few weeks, al Shabaab has been steadily losing ground since it was forced out of Mogadishu in August 2011.
Last month, a reconstituted Somali Army – assisted by African Union troops – captured the key southern Somali port city of Kismayu. The loss of Kismayu port is a major blow to al Shabaab militants, depriving them of revenue from taxing local businesses and lucrative shipping transactions.
Experts believe the loss of territory could lead al Shabaab to conduct low-level yet deadly attacks such as suicide bombings in Mogadishu. Under such circumstances, the fates of al Shabaab hostages are particularly fragile.
In his latest video message to Hollande, Allex warned that he feared for his life.
"Mr. President, I am still alive but for how long? That depends on you, for if you do not reach an agreement for my release then I am afraid this will be the last message you receive from me," he said.