Murder of French journalists a ‘botched AQIM operation’
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Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has said the kidnapping and killing of two French journalists was in retaliation for the "daily killings" by French troops in Mali. But the claim appears to be a jihadist whitewash for a botched operation.
Four days after the kidnapping and killing of two French journalists in northern Mali, al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) finally took responsibility on Wednesday for the shocking attack that has baffled many security experts.
In a satellite phone call to Sahara Media, a Mauritanian portal frequently used by jihadists in the region, a spokesman for Abdelkrim al-Targui, an AQIM commander, claimed responsibility for the attack.
A familiar figure in AQIM’s Malian operations, Targui is one of the few senior Tuareg commanders in a terror organisation dominated by Algerians. A member of the Iforas tribe, Targui hails from Kidal, the northern Malian town where the journalists were kidnapped on Saturday.
On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the claim “seems plausible” although he was careful to note that France was “in the process of verifying” AQIM’s responsibility.
But that still leaves the question of why Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon – two veteran journalists from FRANCE 24’s sister station Radio France Internationale (RFI) – were killed instead of being held hostage by a terror group known for extracting large ransoms in exchange for the release of Western hostages.
The answers being pieced together by investigators and security experts presents a picture of the shifting ties within jihadist ranks, the complicated relations between terror commanders and foot-soldiers, and the murky motivations that can make the difference between life and death in one of the world’s most inhospitable regions.
AQIM has said the killing of Dupont and Verlon was in retaliation for the ‘‘daily crimes’’ committed by French and Malian forces in northern Mali, where France launched a military operation in January to flush out Islamist militants.
But according to Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, the reason supplied for the attack appears “improvised”.
By all accounts, AQIM’s claim that it was punishing France by murdering the two journalists appears to be a jihadist whitewash for a botched operation that lacked the planning and sophistication characteristic of an al Qaeda attack.
Trying to win back a former commander’s favour
Malian intelligence officials believe the man who abducted the two journalists is known as Baye Ag Bakabo, an ethnic Tuareg who is a former member of Targui’s brigade.
Ag Bakabo has been identified as the owner of the vehicle used in the kidnapping, Malian and regional security sources told the AFP on Thursday.
Relatively little is known of Ag Bakabo’s background. But by piecing together accounts from experts and intelligence sources, his track record reveals the fluid links between smuggling networks, al Qaeda and Tuareg separatist groups in the region.
Back in 2010, Ag Bakabo was known to be part of a network of car smugglers working with Targui in the Kidal vicinity, according to Rouiller. He later joined Targui’s brigade – or katiba, as it’s known in Arabic.
AQIM’s organisational structure is made up of brigades that have extensive criminal links in the Sahel, an isolated border region that has long been home to traffickers, smugglers and militants.
Malian intelligence officials believe that Ag Bakabo left Targui’s brigade earlier this year after he was accused of stealing money and returned to his native Kidal. He then joined the MNLA, a Tuareg separatist group, in order to cover up his al Qaeda links, an African Union source in Kidal told the AFP.
Shortly after Ag Bakabo returned home, he was detained and questioned by French security officials in Kidal, but was later released, according to Malian officials.
Ag Bakabo was apparently in Kidal on Saturday when he learned that the French journalists were interviewing an MNLA official. The disgraced AQIM foot soldier then called his former chief, Targui, and two men made a deal that the abduction of the two journalists would constitute a repayment of the money Ag Bakabo had allegedly stolen, a Malian intelligence official told the Associated Press.
For Ag Bakabo, it was also a means to clear his name in jihadist ranks and win back the AQIM commander’s favour.
A terror operation ‘from the bottom-up’
But things started to go wrong after Ag Bakabo kidnapped the journalists, bundled them into a vehicle and was driving them out of Kidal. When the four-wheel drive broke down in the desert about 12 kilometres northeast of Kidal, Ag Bakabo called Targui, who gave him the green light to kill the two French hostages, according to the Associated Press report.
Rouiller notes that this explanation appears plausible for a number of reasons. “This operation was not planned by Targui, it came from the bottom-up,” he noted. “This explains why the operation was not well done. There was only one car and when it broke down, Ag Babako called Targui to say ‘we’re in trouble’.”
The order to kill the journalists, according to Rouiller, fits AQIM rules that if there is a risk of losing hostages, fighters are required to kill hostages rather than allowing them to be recovered by security forces.
Hostage-taking and negotiations: All in the family
Targui’s alleged order to kill Dupont and Verlon may have adhered to AQIM rules. But it could affect his relations with Iyad Ag Ghali, a controversial Tuareg figure sometimes known as "Mali's whisky-drinking rebel turned Islamist chief".
Most experts agree that Targui is related to Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, one of a handful of Islamist militant groups operating in the region. Some accounts say the two men are cousins while others say Targui is Ghali’s nephew.
According to Mathieu Guidère, a specialist in radical Islam from the University of Toulouse, Targui climbed higher up the jihadist ranks than his older relative since he began his militant career at a younger age.
Targui “appeared to be much more radical,” said Guidère in an interview with RFI. “But their links were close enough and he kept in regular contact with his uncle.”
The blood ties served as a lucrative financing source for Ag Ghali, who is particularly well placed to negotiate ransom payments for the release of Western hostages.
According to French media reports, Ag Ghali negotiated the release of four French hostages last week in exchange for a ransom payment of more than 20 million euros.
The four French engineers were kidnapped from an uranium mining town in neighbouring Niger in 2010. AQIM took responsibility for the attack.
The French government has denied reports of a ransom payment in exchange for their release, but many Western diplomats and former French intelligence officials discount the denial.
According to Guidère, the four hostages were being held by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of AQIM’s most dreaded leaders, around February, when the AQIM leader was killed in a French military operation in the remote Ifoghas Mountains of northern Mali.
Following Abou Zeid’s death, Targui took control of the hostages until their release last week, said Guidère.
According to Malian media reports, French intelligence officials approached Ghali to secure the release of the four hostages. In return for his services, Ghali was allowed free movement in northern Mali – a region that currently hosts French and African Union troops.
“The assassination of the RFI journalists will change the balance of that relationship with French and African Union troops,” said Rouiller. “It will change any kind of negotiations they have reached. Iyad Ag Ghali right now is in trouble.”
But Ghali is not likely to stay down and out in the Sahel for long. A wily operator who has switched allegiances as easily as the shifting sands of the Sahara, Ghali could well redefine his position in Islamist ranks. And even if his relations with his more brutal al Qaeda relative may be strained for the moment, in this corner of the Sahara, blood runs thicker than water.