Al Qaeda silent on French hostages in Mali
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Even as French and Malian troops conducted a lightning military offensive in northern Mali, Islamist militant groups refrained from carrying out their threats to execute seven French hostages in captivity.
For several months last year, as France was leading international diplomatic efforts for an intervention in Mali, al Qaeda’s North African branch warned that a military operation would “provoke” the executions of French hostages in the region.
In a statement released in September 2012, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) threatened that, “These crazy initiatives [for a Malian intervention] will not only lead to the deaths of the hostages, but it will drown the whole of France in the marches of Azawad.”
Azawad refers to the region of northern Mali that fell to a motley mix of rebel groups following a Malian military coup in March 2012.
But since the French offensive to liberate northern Mali began on January 11, there has been an uncharacteristic AQIM silence on the fates of the French hostages.
Seven French nationals are currently being held in the Sahel, the inhospitable southern belt of the Sahara desert. Four hostages were abducted in a uranium mining town in Niger in September 2010. Two others were kidnapped in the central Malian town of Hombori in November 2011. A year later, on November 20, 2012, another French national was abducted near the southwestern Malian town of Nioro by MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad), an AQIM splinter group that sprang up last year in northern Mali.
On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was “likely” that the hostages were being held in the Ifoghas massif region, a remote rock-strewn area of northern Mali near the Algerian border.
In an interview with French radio station France-Inter, Le Drian added that, “We never lose sight or mind of the fact that there are French hostages in this territory.”
‘They’re more useful as human shields’
On January 20 -- nine days after the launch of the Malian intervention -- French officials, who tend to be tight-lipped about hostage issues, revealed that the hostages were “alive”.
In the pre-intervention days, there were some fears that the hostages could be executed in retaliation for a military operation. But that assessment appears to have changed since the French military intervention in Mali began.
"The various jihadist groups have no interest in executing them,” said Philippe Hugon, Africa research director at the Paris-based IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques). “They’re more useful as human shields.”
For jihadists, Western hostages represent a lucrative source of income. “They are commercial products that the Islamist militants are not willing to easily give up,” said Pierre Conesa, a former senior French Defense Ministry official.
Conesa estimates that AQIM could make 150 million euros -- or nearly two-thirds the Malian defense budget -- for seven French nationals. “The money would be then redistributed throughout society, particularly the various intermediaries who participated in the kidnapping," he explained.
The fact that the hostages represent a potential income source could explain why there has been no official threat of execution despite the increased presence of French and Malian troops in northern Mali over the past three weeks.
"For now, I would say that the jihadist groups do not feel threatened enough to feel the need to use their hostages,” said Conesa, who believes the conflict in Mali is only in its first phase. "There is much talk of the victory of the French army, but I think it is actually a position of strategic withdrawal by the jihadist groups,” he said.
Like many experts, Conesa believes that from their remote retreats in the Ifoghas massif, the Islamist militants pose a serious terrorist and security threat. “In this mountainous region near the Algerian border, the fighting will be much more difficult and tense for the Malian and French armies,” said Conesa.
A tacit agreement binding the military to hostage-takers
In the past, French and other European officials have been tight-lipped about negotiations and ransom payments in exchange for their abducted nationals. Nevertheless, there have been numerous reports of ransom payments by European governments over the past few years. Following the Malian intervention, could France be tempted by the prospect of negotiations with the kidnappers?
Hugon believes that for the moment, Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine and MUJAO would be excluded from any prospective talks.
In a phone interview with the AFP on January 26 – shortly before the liberation of the northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Kidal – a MUJAO spokesman said the group was ready to negotiate the release of Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, the French national who was seized in southwestern Mali on November 20.
Responding to the report, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault insisted France would not negotiate with the Islamist militants. "We won't get involved in the logic of blackmail," said Ayrault.
According to Conesa, a tacit agreement binds the military action and the kidnappers. "For their part, the French army did not exterminate the Islamists holding them in order to preserve the lives of the hostages," said Conesa, noting that the government would not have been able to stomach the public response to a gruesome hostage execution video.