Who killed the French journalists in Mali, and why?

The kidnapping and killing of RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon in Mali has raised questions over the identities and motives of the attackers – and what this means for Mali’s security.


The northern Malian town of Kidal is without a doubt a dangerous outpost, nobody disputes that. But even by Kidal’s fragile security standards, Saturday’s kidnapping and murder of two French journalists in broad daylight was a shocking attack that has raised questions about the likely identities of the assailants, their motives and what it spells for Mali’s security.

No group has claimed responsibility for the killings of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, two veteran journalists from FRANCE 24’s sister station Radio France Internationale (RFI). French investigators are currently cooperating with their Malian counterparts in a criminal investigation launched shortly after the brutal attack.

French officials suspect the involvement of al Qaeda’s regional arm, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). But in an interview with a French radio station on Monday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that a number of militant groups could be responsible for the attack.

“Right now we aren’t sure who committed this assassination,” said Fabius. “There are a few theories. We’re talking about AQIM, MUJAO - which has now taken on a new form called al Mourabitounes - we’re talking about possible dissent between group members. Currently, there are no precise answers to these questions.”

A dizzying number of rebel and jihadist groups have been operating in Mali since the Tuareg separatist MNLA group (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) declared the independence of northern Mali in April 2012. A French military operation launched in January liberated the territory from rebel control, but militant groups still operate in the area.

MUJAO – which is the French acronym for the Movement for Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa – announced its existence in October 2011, when it described itself as a breakaway from AQIM.

More than two years later, MUJAO announced its alliance with terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who also broke away from AQIM to form his own group. The new alliance is called al Mourabitounes, according to a statement posted on jihadist chat sites in August.

The involvement of a jihadist group is one of several hypotheses about the likely perpetrators of Saturday’s brazen attack.

“There are many options, which makes this very tragic,” said Zyad Limam, editor of Afrique Magazine, on the FRANCE 24 Debate show on Monday.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 on Tuesday, Douglas Yates from the American University of Paris noted that, “The official version right now is that this is the work of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That hypothesis is plausible because global jihadists see this as a permanent war in which France is an enemy. So, the French journalists of RFI are seen as the symbols of France and reasonable targets.”

Hopes of ‘scoring millions of euros’

Although the attack bears the hallmark of an al Qaeda-related group, Yates noted that there could also have been a purely criminal intent behind the kidnapping, which then went horribly wrong.

“The other hypothesis is that these were criminals who were going to take two French journalists in the hope of scoring millions of euros,” said Yates.

Kidal lies in the Sahel, a lawless border region that has historically afforded shelter to smugglers, kidnappers, traffickers, as well as militant groups.

Last week, French news media reported that a ransom of more than 20 million euros was paid for the release of four French hostages who were held in captivity in the Sahel for more than three years.

Western diplomats based in the region have warned that the payment of large ransoms encourages the kidnapping of Western citizens in an impoverished region where kidnapping is big business.

Is the MNLA divided?

The fact that the kidnapping and murders occurred in Kidal, an MNLA stronghold, has also raised questions about Mali’s chronic Tuareg problem.

Dupont and Verlon were abducted shortly after interviewing a prominent MNLA leader at his Kidal home. Shortly after the attack, Ambéry Ag Rissa said he heard a noise outside, but when he went outside, armed men forced him to go back into his house.

“The journalists were visiting a prominent MNLA chief and were abducted just outside his house,” noted Limam. “So there’s the real issue of the cohesiveness of the MNLA – are they divided? Do they have rogue members?”

The MNLA has expressed its shock over the attack and has offered to cooperate with investigators seeking to apprehend the journalists’ killers.

But that still leaves the thorny issue of the MNLA’s continued presence as an armed group in a country that has – theoretically at least – returned to constitutional order following the July presidential election.

A month before the presidential election, the MNLA signed a peace deal with Malian authorities in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso.

But according to Konare Dougoukolo, a Mali researcher based in Paris, the Ouagadougou accord has not been fully implemented.

“Now Mali is supposed to be a sovereign state looking after Kidal,” said Dougoukolo. “The agreement in Ouagadougou required the MNLA to be confined and to be disarmed – and that has not happened.”

‘There’s no Malian army today’

France’s perceived sensitivity to the MNLA has been viewed with suspicion by many Malians who hold the Tuareg group responsible for last year’s crisis.

The suspicions were exacerbated during the French military operation earlier this year when French troops entered Kidal without the Malian army after the MNLA made it clear that the group would not surrender to their traditional foe, the Malian military forces.

A common complaint on the streets of Bamako is that the MNLA still controls Kidal while Malian troops stationed in Kidal are holed up “like sardines” in their barracks.

But according to Limam of Afrique Magazine, the complaint by many Malian citizens that the army does not control Kidal obscures another pressing problem in the West African nation: the abysmal state of the Malian military.

“There’s no Malian army today,” said Limam. “There is hope, but there’s no army. We still have troops loyal to Captain Sanogo.”

Captain Amadou Sanogo (now promoted to general) was the leader of the March 22, 2012 military coup, which ousted a democratically elected president and plunged the country into a perfect storm of crises.

The French military operation may have brought Mali back from the brink, but Saturday’s attack has proved that this West African nation still has a long bumpy road to stability and reconciliation.


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