Quick Thoughts on the Failed Hostage Rescue in Nigeria

This post originally appeared at the Sahel Blog.

Last May, two Europeans were kidnapped in Kebbi State in Northwestern Nigeria. News of the victims after their disappearance was always scanty – a video and other rumors purported to link the kidnapping to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or another Al Qaeda group, but the evidence of Al Qaeda’s involvement never seemed conclusive to me. Then, yesterday, tragic news broke that the two men had died during a failed rescue attempt in Sokoto (Sokoto State borders Kebbi State). That attempt was apparently led by British special forces.

When the news broke, speculation began immediately that the rebel sect Boko Haram was behind the kidnappings. Many also see the kidnapping as evidence of a tie between Boko Haram and AQIM. This would mark the first kidnapping in Nigeria where Boko Haram’s involvement was proven. Kidnapping Westerners is a frequent tactic of AQIM.

British officials have stated their belief that Boko Haram was indeed responsible for the kidnapping, and one official has suggested that AQIM was also part of the operation:

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, and a senior British government official said the kidnappers appeared to be from an al-Qaida-linked cell within Boko Haram, but not within the group’s main faction.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has also stated that Boko Haram was behind the kidnapping. Arrests of alleged Boko Haram members followed the gun battle during which the hostages died.

Excellent coverage of news surrounding the kidnapping has been provided by the BBC and by former BBC correspondent Andrew Walker at his blog.

I have only three thoughts to offer on this event. The first is that any doubts about whether it really was Boko Haram that kidnapped the Europeans – doubts that stem from the facts that Kebbi is far outside Boko Haram’s normal zone of operations, that Boko Haram never seems to have kidnapped a Westerner before, or that communications from the kidnappers never seemed to fit with the style of either Boko Haram or AQIM – may be swept aside as the narrative takes hold that this kidnapping was a Boko Haram operation, full stop. There are, indeed, many possible explanations that deserve consideration, ranging from the possibility that the kidnappers were opportunistic criminals to the possibility that they were copycats to the possibility that it was Boko Haram itself, or a splinter group. Those complexities, uncertainties, and nuances may now be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, the idea – or the reality (because I really don’t know) – that Boko Haram is kidnapping Westerners will play into larger narratives about what kind of threat the group poses to Nigeria and to the West. See one example here. If those narratives are built on shaky assumptions, they will skew outside understandings of the situation in Nigeria.

My second thought is more of a question: Are armed rescue attempts worth it? Armed rescues have succeeded elsewhere, but their recent record in the Sahel is one of tragedy. In that vein, this article from the BBC, “Italian anger at UK over rescue bid,” is worth reading.

And my final thought is that the deaths of these Europeans bode ill for the German engineer kidnapped in Kano in January. He was kidnapped the day that I left that city, and he has been in my thoughts. I hope that he is alright, and that he will be free soon. But yesterday’s events cast a shadow over his captivity.

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