French journalists in Mali were killed and not held for ransom. Why?

We don't really know. But we need to find out.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
A poster with the portraits of reporter Ghislaine Dupont (r.) and radio technician Claude Verlon, two French journalists killed in Mali last week is seen at the entrance of Radio France Internationale building in Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris November 5, 2013.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own.  

It is not so surprising that Radio France Internationale journalist and sound engineer Claude Verion and colleague Ghislaine Dupont were kidnapped on Nov. 2 in the northern Mali town of Kidal. The kidnapping of foreigners in the Sahel is, if not frequent, then also not uncommon.

The question is, however, why were they murdered and not held for ransom? 

According to Radio France Internationale (RFI), Deutsche Welle (DW), and the Voice of America (VOA), the two journalists were kidnapped shortly after they concluded an interview with a leader of the MNLA, a Tuareg separatist group. 

Quoting the French foreign ministry, RFI reports the two were taken by a group of armed men. An MNLA spokesman is quoted by VOA as saying the captors killed the journalists and French troops found their bodies a short distance from Kidal. Apparently, they were murdered shortly after they were seized. No group or organization has claimed responsibility.

Criminal groups and jihadis operating in the Sahel (including northern Mali) have grown fat from the ransoms paid for the release of European kidnap victims. Hence the kidnapping of the two French journalists fits a pattern.

What does not fit is their murder. Kidnap victims are sometimes held for a long time. Last week, four French men were released in Niger after having been held for more than three years.

While never openly reported, the common supposition is that most kidnap victims are released upon the payment of ransom. Ransoms constitute an important revenue stream for jihadis in the Sahel along with a variety of smuggling and other criminal syndicates active in the region.

Official American and British government policy is to never pay ransom. Not so among some European states, and private corporations have long been suspected of paying ransom for their captive citizens and/or employees.

American and British policy and practice may reduce the attractiveness of their citizens to kidnappers. On the other hand, kidnappers will kill their victims when it is clear that no ransom is forthcoming. That can constitute formidable pressure on governments to pay.

So, if ransom was not the motive, why were Verion and Dupont killed?

The French and Malian governments have launched an inquiry and a search for the perpetrators. The UN Security Council has called on Mali to “swiftly investigate the case” and to hold the perpetrators to account.

But, in northern Mali where jihadist and other violence continues, infrastructure is poor, and the government weak or non-existent.

The likelihood of learning the truth behind this tragic episode is remote. 

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