Last month, not long after the release by the terror group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb of two Spanish hostages it had held in captivity for nine months, came the news that Acció Solidaria, the NGO that employs those hostages, plans to send another aid convoy to the same region in “homage” to the freed men.
It will be sending this convoy in the knowledge that there is a serious risk of a second kidnapping. The French, British and American governments all strongly advise their citizens against travel through Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger, and the number of kidnappings of Westerners in this region has risen sharply in the past two years (five French citizens working in Niger, snatched two weeks ago, were the latest victims). Even the governments of the West African nations concerned have acknowledged the danger, and they are busy promoting other parts of their countries as safe havens for tourists.
Acció Solidaria knows that, although it calls itself a non-governmental organisation, if a second kidnapping takes place it will be able to count on the Spanish government to bail it out. That government gave seven million Euros to AQIM and its intermediaries to secure the release of those freed in August. In recent years, AQIM has also reportedly received large ransom payments from the Canadian, Italian, German, Swiss and French governments. As a further part of the Spanish deal, moreover, an AQIM militant was released from prison in Mauritania.
The leaders of AQIM are growing rich. The funds acquired will enable them to buy faster jeeps, more weapons and men, and the latest in GPS and communications technology. But kidnapping is unlikely to remain their sole raison d’être; the pressures on them are such that hostage-taking can only be a means, not an end. Even if AQIM’s leaders wanted to just take the money and spend it on a life of luxury, the patrimonial nature of relationships in West Africa would make this impossible. Those who have wealth here cannot enjoy it alone; just as they have been helped by others on their way up, so must they now repay that assistance and dispense largesse to their growing band of dependents. If they refuse, they will be ostracised. Their families and communities will cast them out. As word gets around that they have come into money, the number of supplicants will swell; they will have no choice but to continue to accumulate, to amass and dole out ever more wealth and ever more power.
The recent escalation of kidnappings may be a response to the growing pressures faced by AQIM’s leaders, or it may simply reflect their increased capacity for action. Kidnappings, however, are a finite resource; Western tourists are avoiding the region (attendances at Mali’s Festival du Dessert are down 70%), aid workers are being evacuated by the week, and foreign businesses have stepped up security. When the well runs dry, AQIM will have to find other means of keeping its supporters happy. It will be able to accrue some income from the trans-Saharan drug trade (one of the group’s two main leaders is known as Mr Marlboro because of his involvement in tobacco contraband), but a more worrying prospect is that it uses its ransom booty to gun for real power. Already the group has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly bombings of official buildings in Algeria, and in the last couple of months it has carried out attacks on barracks in Mauritania and Mali. If its links with the central Asian branch of Al Qaeda grow stronger (Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri has publicly welcomed AQIM’s emergence), a jihad to bring down insufficiently fanatical governments across West Africa cannot be ruled out. Given the weakness and poverty of many of those governments, the danger that such a jihad might succeed is real.
So should European governments continue to fund AQIM’s activities? If Acció Solidaria suffers another kidnapping, should Spain cough up another large ransom? And what of tourists who brave the region despite the warnings of their foreign ministries – whose responsibility are they if they are captured? These are difficult questions, but for Africa’s governments the answer is clear. It is Africans, not Europeans, who will suffer most if AQIM grows in strength and if convicted terrorists continue to be released, so in July 2009 the African Union passed a resolution condemning ransom payments and asking the international community ‘to criminalize the payment of ransoms to terrorist groups.’