In mid-December 2008, UN special envoy to Niger, Robert Fowler, and his aide, Louis Guay, mysteriously disappeared while on a field trip. The fate of the two Canadians long remained shrouded in uncertainty. A Nigerian Tuareg rebel group first claimed responsibility for their abduction, but this claim was quickly retracted. In early February Canadian authorities received a video tape from unknown sources which confirmed the two diplomats were still alive, and demanded a prisoner swap for their release. Last Wednesday, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb released an online statement in which it claimed responsibility not only for the abduction of Fowler and Guay, but also that of four European tourists who disappeared from the Mali-Niger border area in late January.
The latest statement is brief and raises as many questions as it answers. It names and depicts the four tourists (one Briton, one German and two Swiss), but offers no indications of their approximate geographical whereabouts, nor on whether the six hostages are held together. The statement includes no specific demands, but states that the hostages are held as prisoners under the shari‘a law and that conditions for their release will be given at a later time.
These two recent cases resemble the kidnapping case of two Austrian tourists last year in several respects (see also here). They were abducted by AQIM elements in Tunisia in February, then taken to Mali and held there until released for a ransom in October.
First, all three cases illustrate AQIM’s extended geographical reach. While the Austrian operation involved Tunisian, Algerian, (possibly Libyan), and Malian territory, the two latest cases represent the first AQIM incursions into Niger (officially, at least). It has been speculated that local Tuareg groups in Niger executed the abductions, and then handed the hostages over to AQIM in Mali or Algeria, but the statement affirms that the operations were carried out by “mujahideen” (which normally refers to AQIM’s own elements). Whether the AQIM presence is direct or indirect, it has significant operational implications.
Second, the current cases echo the Austrian abduction through the confusing set of messages and demands presented by the captors. In the Austrian case, the AQIM first demanded the release of members imprisoned in Algeria and Tunisia. They then changed the request to include two Muslims imprisoned on terrorism charges in Austria, before settling on a ransom. It is not clear whether this evolution reflected a lack of internal coordination, a poor negotiation strategy or simply the unrealistic nature of the initial demands.
Nevertheless, in economic terms, kidnapping has proved profitable for AQIM lately. In this regard, it should be noted that abductions have long been a favoured tactic of AQIM (and GSPC before it). Most victims in the past have tended to be wealthy Algerians kidnapped for money. Third, then, the three recent cases illustrate the increase in anti-Western activity by AQIM. Algeria and Mauritania in particular have experienced a rise in attacks on foreign interests and nationals. The latest abduction cases indicate that this now also applies to other countries in the region.
Finally, if these new cases follow the pattern of the Austrian affair, we will hear more from the captors soon. In any case let us hope for a more rapid release than last time, when the hostages were held for over eight months. To be continued.
Document (Arabic): 02-18-09-aqim-abduction-un-representatives-and-european-tourists