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Five possible solutions for kidnappings in Africa's Sahel region

Kidnappings in Africa's Sahel region in recent years present policy makers with a tough question: what is the best way to deal with and prevent kidnappings by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / February 7, 2011



Since 2007, kidnappings and murders of Westerners in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have presented Sahelian and European policymakers with terrible dilemmas: Should militaries try to rescue hostages? Should governments pay huge ransoms to terrorists? How can authorities prevent kidnappings? How can governments work together to neutralize AQIM?

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I am exploring these questions in a three-part series. Part one cataloged kidnappings. Part two argued that ransoms are preferable to rescues because rescues are risky, ransoms save lives, and ransom payments have not produced a clear increase in kidnappings. This final installment moves past the ransoms-vs-rescues debate to assess the pros and cons of different preventive solutions. At the end, I offer a combined approach.

Solution One: Do less

Before considering what more Sahelian and European governments could do about kidnappings, it’s worth asking whether they should do less. Should governments leave kidnapping victims to their fates? Clint Watts writes, “I’m against ransoms entirely and almost always against rescues…If you want to travel to Timbuktu and study ancient texts, you’re on your own! Good luck and don’t lose your head out there!”

Pros: Reducing the role of European and Sahelian governments in kidnapping crises could deny cash to AQIM, avoid messy rescues, and prevent AQIM from achieving symbolic victories. Refusing to play the ransom-or-rescue game could reduce AQIM’s incentives to kidnap Europeans and let governments shift from reaction to action.

Cons: Leaving kidnapping victims to their fates might be politically impossible for Sahelian governments (who face pressure from Europe to act and who want to avoid being perceived as weak or incompetent) and European governments (who face domestic pressures to intervene and who want to avoid bad press resulting from deaths). Additionally, victims’ families might try to pay kidnappers, enriching AQIM or endangering private negotiators.

Solution Two: Reduce the Number of Victims

Kidnappings have already reduced European travel to the Sahel. Government policies such as issuing travel warnings, cutting exchange programs, requiring tourists to register with local authorities, and taking precautions regarding government employees’ movements give AQIM fewer targets. Further moves could include mandatory information sessions for tourists on avoiding kidnappings, convoy arrangements for travel between destinations, or encouraging Europeans to hire security escorts.

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