Analysts say the announcement likely means the hostages have been transferred from local mercenaries to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a flourishing militant group that evolved from an earlier movement in Algeria. Analysts expect a ransom demand will be made.
The kidnappings are just the latest crime associated with Al Qaeda affiliates in the region. In July, a French aid worker seized by AQIM in Niger was murdered during a French rescue attempt. The rescue attempt was set up with feigned ransom negotiations.
That murder may be what motivated the Spanish government to allegedly pay a ransom to secure the release of three Spanish aid workers weeks later. The group was paid between 5 and 10 million euros and also secured release of militants in exchange for the Spaniards' freedom, according to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy Vice President J. Peter Pham.
If true, AQIM may be morphing into a self-sustaining kidnap-for-ransom gang. Dr. Pham says the group may also be charging Latin American drug cartels "right-of-passage" fees for Saharan caravans of Europe-bound cocaine smugglers.
Pham says the group isn't cut from the same ideological cloth as Osama bin Laden's inner circle and that this Saharan band probably has little ambition to seize Niger's uranium. But the group’s operational and financial successes could lead to bigger problems.
"Since 9/11, everyone has talked about the crime-terror nexus, but for the most part it's mythological," he says. "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has actually created it. "
When chased, the Saharan outfit has hidden in cocaine cartel safe houses in the desert, he says. Through mercenaries, the group has locked down ancient caravan routes from seaside Mauritania to the eastern brink of Niger. It's fairly reasonable to assume they're not letting cocaine transit those corridors for free, says Pham.
This Saharan Al Qaeda chapter outsources their dirty work to locals who’ve memorized the rocky landscape of villages and potential hideouts around the sites they target. That, Pham suggests, is why they’re succeeding where most militants flounder.
“A disproportionate number of terrorist attacks ... fail simply because ideological conviction is not sufficient to have technical and operation capabilities,” he says. “What this group is doing is they’re increasing their probability of success by hiring people who understand the terrain, and have the know-how.”