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. Continue reading