Malian police have arrested men suspected of having kidnapped five Westerners on behalf of Al Qaeda, while the terror group has released photos of the kidnap victims and demanded an end to Mali’s cooperation with the French government.
The kidnappings, which took place in two separate incidents on Nov. 24 and 25 near the Malian town of Homburi (see map), are just the latest of a string of attacks on Westerners in Mali by those claiming to be associated with Al Qaeda.
Malian officials paraded three of the four arrested men in front of state TV cameras, and described the men as “subcontractors” who had kidnapped the Westerners on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a shadowy group that says it is affiliated with the global jihad network. Western security officials say that organized criminal groups, generally associated with the smuggling of drugs and arms through the African Sahel region, have begun to kidnap Westerners and sell them on to radical jihadist groups who then ransom them back to their families.
"We confirm the arrest of four kidnappers," a spokesman for the Malian presidency told Reuters."They are subcontractors for AQIM, to whom they handed over the hostages.”
Many Western governments – including the United States -- now issue strong warnings to their citizens to avoid travel in the arid northern regions of Mali, where the rule of the Malian government is weak. Making conditions worse in the region is the recent downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who funded, trained, and sheltered numerous Saharan militant groups to use against his neighbors. Many of those groups have now fled into the Sahara and Sahel region, spreading instability into an area that already had enough internal disputes.
A looming food crisis, predicted by the US’s Famine Early Warning System for 2012, is only likely to make matters worse.
While Al Qaeda is showing signs of waning in Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the killing or arrest of much of its leadership, Al Qaeda-related groups continue to make their presence felt across the African Sahel region, where Saharan and mainly Muslim communities come into contact with the more arable regions dominated by Christians further south.
In Nigeria’s northern regions, for instance, a radical Islamist movement called Boko Haram has launched a terrorist assault on the Nigerian government, adopting the suicide bomb methods pioneered by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further north in Niger, Mali, and Mauritania, Al Qaeda-related groups have taken to kidnapping Westerners for ransom money, and the governments of those countries are struggling to counter the challenge.
To deal with the threat in its north, Mali has begun to work more closely with both France and the US military in training Malian troops in counter-terrorism measures. But as a result, Mali has lost millions of dollars in tourism, as historic cities such as Gao and Timbuktu have effectively been cut off to outsiders.
It is by no means certain what the motives of the kidnappers in Mali may have been, and to date, there has been no public information about whether kidnappers have asked for ransom or issued demands. But on the day that Mali showed off its arrested kidnap suspects, a spokesman for a until-now unknown group called the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa, or Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya. The news agency Agence-France Presse reports that this group claims to have broken away from AQIM.
"Repeated attacks on Mujahideen [Islamist fighters] to please America and France is a mistaken and unjust policy that contradicts Islamic sharia law as well as reason and will not pass without retribution," the group said in a statement, quoted by Reuters.
In its travel warning for Mali, the British Foreign Office has posted a list of kidnap incidents throughout the Sahel region. The list includes eight Westerners and one South African kidnapped or killed in the past two months alone.
South Africa, which is following the kidnap of a South African national last month, says it has “no update” about the status of its citizen, whose name it has not released, but South African officials privately have told reporters they are encouraged that a video released by the kidnappers show the South African alive and apparently healthy.