terror and intimidation

A behind-the-scenes look at al-Qaeda’s kidnapping strategy in the Sahel

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This article is part of the dossier:

Kidnappings in Sahel on the rise

By Manon Laplace, Flore Monteau

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Posted on July 11, 2023 08:18

 © Ansar Dine jihadists, between Gao and Kidal, 12 June 2012. REUTERS
Ansar Dine jihadists, between Gao and Kidal, 12 June 2012. REUTERS

In recent years, the number of kidnappings in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has soared. JNIM, the Sahelian branch of al-Qaeda, which has become adept at abducting people, has made it a pillar of its expansion strategy in the region.

Hostage-taking in the Sahel, the nerve centre of Jihadist expansion (1/3)

His relaxed appearance almost makes you forget the weight of the 711 days of detention that preceded his release. On the tarmac at France’s Villacoublay airport on 21 March 2023, Olivier Dubois looks unchanged. It’s the same face that the French had seen emblazoned on town halls, the front pages of newspapers and even on the façade of the Panthéon during his long months in detention.

Overjoyed to be reunited with his loved ones, the former hostage, freed the day before, does not seem to bear – at least physically – any scars from the two years he has just spent in the hands of Nusrat al-Islam, officially known as Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), which kidnapped him on 8 April 2021 in Gao, northern Mali.

Like him, dozens of Westerners have been taken hostage in the Sahel-Saharan strip over the past decade, as the chaos of a vast jihadist insurgency has spread across the region, with neither the local states nor their foreign partners able to contain it. Hundreds of Malians, Burkinabès and Nigeriens have also been kidnapped, although their plight is not often picked up by the international press.

1,100 kidnappings from 2017 to 2023

Although kidnappings in the Sahel are carried out by a variety of actors such as armed militias or criminal entities, the vast majority are attributable to the various jihadist groups roaming the region, in particular, JNIM, led by Malian Iyad Ag Ghaly.

According to statistics from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which specialises in gathering information in conflict zones, the JNIM and the katibas (fighting units) affiliated to it are responsible for 845 of the 1,100 kidnappings – one kidnapping may involve several individuals – perpetrated in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger between 2017 and 2023.

This data collection, hampered by a lack of access to the field and the absence of official figures, paints only a partial picture of the phenomenon. But ACLED’s work does have the merit of being able to outline trends. It demonstrates that the number of kidnappings has risen sharply since 2017. In Burkina Faso alone, they have increased thirty-fold over the last six years.

“This can be explained in particular by the reorganisation and restructuring undertaken by the jihadist groups following Operation Serval [the French military operation in Mali, launched in 2013], but also by the expansion of the jihadist insurrection that followed,” says Héni Nsaibia, senior researcher on the Sahel at ACLED.

“Resources and funding have been decentralised, as a result of the evolution of the structures linked to the JNIM. More self-sufficient sub-groups have emerged, which has encouraged more kidnappings”.

Codified modus operandi

However, the jihadist factions that have pledged allegiance to JNIM, such as the Katiba Macina, led by Malian Amadou Koufa, or Ansarul Islam in Burkina Faso, are not totally autonomous when it comes to kidnapping.

“At al-Qaeda, everything is highly codified, and any fighter or group of fighters does not decide to get hold of a high-value hostage on its own. It’s the high command that decides. When sub-groups like Katiba Macina or Ansarul Islam kidnap someone, they do so according to the JNIM’s codes of command,” says Guillaume Soto-Mayor, an associate researcher on sub-Saharan Africa at the Middle East Institute.

In Mali, some katibas tried for a while to take hostages on their own but were called to order by JNIM leadership, as researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel recounts in her study “(Ne pas) dialoguer avec les groupes ‘jihadistes’ au Mali?” [(Not) talking to “jihadist” groups in Mali?].

This is the case of central Mali’s Katiba Macina. From 2015 to 2016, the group kidnapped a series of notables for reasons that were not always in line with JNIM’s. “So Iyad Ag Ghaly sent a message to the katiba asking it to cease these activities and restore order within the organisation,” writes Bouhel.

Taking a civilian administrator or a member of an NGO hostage is a symbolic attack on any presence considered to be a Western intermediary

When it comes to hostage-taking, Iyad Ag Ghaly’s JNIM, far from striking at random, follows a highly codified modus operandi.

“By treating these groups like brainless bandits, we’ve forgotten that they have 40 years of experience. There are very clear rules of engagement and instructions for hostage-taking, including within the Islamic State. Within al-Qaeda, these rules are very tough, longstanding and virtually unchanging,” says Soto-Mayor.

Wide range of logistics

Hostage-taking also requires considerable logistical input. While small-scale bandits or traffickers who gravitate around jihadist groups can kidnap hostages and then sell them on to larger groups, only well-established organisations are capable of holding them for several years.

“Not everyone is capable of managing, hiding, feeding, or moving a hostage on a regular basis,” says Soto-Mayor.

“This is not a trivial act, and it requires know-how and represents a significant cost. If the group is unable to do it, it has to deal with trusted local operators who have this know-how. Once a hostage has been kidnapped, you need to have the means to move him to an area under your control. Not everyone can do that.”

For all these reasons, hostage management is the prerogative of a handful of “specialists” within the GAT. “JNIM has judges, internal regulators, ideologists and experts for each of its areas. The hostage issue is no exception,” explains Soto-Mayor.

The specialists

Among these JNIM “experts”, one name invariably comes up: that of Sedane Ag Hita, Ag Ghaly’s first lieutenant, a former member of the Malian army and presumed mastermind of the kidnapping and murder of RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon in Kidal in 2013.

Within the jihadist nebula, all negotiations relating to the release of hostages in Mali pass through Ag Hita. In particular, it was he who set out, in writing, the quid pro quos required for the release of Malian opposition figure Soumaïla Cissé in 2020. This Tuareg commander of JNIM in the Kidal region sometimes visits hostages. He spent several days with journalist Dubois in the heart of the desert during his captivity.

Another key figure in JNIM’s hostage management is Abderrahmane Talha, better known as Talha al-Libi, wali (governor) of the Timbuktu region and former leader of the Katiba al-Furqan.

“He is more involved in logistical management, designating places of detention, coordinating cache changes and passing on contact details. But Sedane Ag Hita is in charge of the hostages’ fate,” says an expert on the subject who asked to remain anonymous.

By treating these groups like brainless bandits, we’ve forgotten that they have 40 years of experience. There are very clear rules of engagement and instructions for hostage-taking.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS), a JNIM rival, follows the same logic. One of the hostage management specialists in the Sahel branch of Daech is Ousmane Illiassou Djibo, better known by the nickname “Little Chapori”, who is a wanted man in the US.

This Nigerian was considered to be a close associate of Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, the former head of the EIGS who was neutralised in 2021 by French special forces. As of late 2022, he was rumoured to be dead, although this could not be officially confirmed.

Ag Hita, Libi, Little Chapori all have one thing in common – in addition to their expertise, they have a territorial network granting them access to a variety of hideouts, a sine qua non for regularly moving hostages. Above all, these “specialists” in hostage management have extensive local networks, which are necessary to keep hostages hidden in the same place for several weeks without being reported.

A hostage situation can go on for a very long time. To date, the longest known Western hostage being held in the Sahel is the Romanian Iulian Ghergut, who was abducted on 4 April 2015 while working as a security guard in the Tambao manganese mine in northern Burkina Faso.

Priceless source of income

“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQMI] has real expertise in managing hostages. The group always has a large stock of hostages and is able to hold on to them for several years. There is a constant flow of hostages in and out of the country, which enables the group to negotiate high ransoms,” explains Arnaud Froger, head of the investigations desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Along with taxes imposed on local populations, ransoms are one of the main sources of revenue for jihadist groups in the Sahel. According to some estimates, ransoms accounted for up to 80% of AQMI’s income between 2005 and 2010.

“The kidnapping economy reached its peak profitability in the first decade of the 2000s when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat [GSPC] –AQMI’s Algerian predecessor – moved from southern Algeria to northern Mali and northern Niger.

A report by Serigne Bamba Gaye for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, published in 2018, estimates that between 2006 and 2012 AQMI alone took in €60m in ransoms,” explains Flore Berger, Sahel analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC) in her report ‘The Silent Threat – Kidnappings in Burkina Faso’ published in 2023.

In a 2014 investigation, the New York Times put forward other figures, this time at a global level. The newspaper estimated that al-Qaeda had earned at least $125m from kidnappings, including $66m in 2013 alone.

As staggering as these estimates are, they are very difficult to verify. But they give an idea of the scale of the phenomenon. They also say a lot about the market value of a hostage and the kind of treatment that follows.

“Hostages are always treated well, unless they are too recalcitrant, as was the case with Swiss hostage Béatrice Stockly, or when their status is considered a threat, for example, if they are suspected of being spies.

Generally, after a few weeks, hostages are no longer handcuffed or shackled. The groups have an interest in keeping them in good health. A hostage who dies represents a significant financial loss,” explains our anonymous source.

This modus operandi was confirmed by Olivier Dubois upon his release. “I wasn’t mistreated and I wasn’t humiliated, even if there were some difficult episodes,” he told France Télévisions. The journalist conceded, however, that he had “had a very bad time” after attempting to escape three times.

Method of governance

Beyond its lucrative aspect, hostage-taking is also a method of governance for the JNIM, especially when local citizens are involved. “These kidnappings are a way of asserting and maintaining control over their territories,” says researcher Berger.

As well as creating a dynamic of terror and intimidation in the regions where the group is present, the kidnappings also send a clear message to the local authorities and rival groups.

NGO employees and government officials are prime targets for the jihadist nebula. “Taking a civilian administrator or a member of an NGO hostage is a symbolic attack on any presence considered to be a Western intermediary. It’s a way of stopping this presence and saying ‘This is Islamic land and we’re protecting it’,” says Soto-Mayor.

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