Quick notes on a kidnapping

My apologies for the long blog absence, work and a clear inability to write after 8 pm have been intervening. However, this will change, oh ye faithful al-Wasat readers who for some reason keep checking the site.

On Thursday Wednesday news broke that a 56 year-old Italian woman, a tourist traveling in the Southern Algerian Sahara about 130 km south of Djanet, had been kidnapped by 14 or 15 (reports differ) armed men along with her guide and cook (who were later released). The kidnappers let their victim use their Thuraya satellite phone to dial her tourist company, which then alerted the relevant authorities. They then proceeded to hustle away from the scene of the kidnapping, sources indicate towards the border with Niger, according to AFP.

A few important points about this kidnapping, which has, unsurprisingly, gotten more extensive coverage in the francophone press than the anglophone:

1) This is the first kidnapping in the Algerian desert since 2003, when the GSPC conducted a series of kidnappings that ultimately netted them 32 hostages and $5 million (oh, how times have changed). This is an important change, given the relative success Algerian security forces have had pushing kidnappers and militant groups (including AQIM) south and over the border into Mali, Mauritania and Niger to a lesser extent. However, despite the recent improvements in coordination and especially the establishment of the joint-Sahelian military command at Tamanrasset, this part of the world is sparsely-populated and nearly impossible to police. Moreover, this kidnapping doesn’t necessarily signal a recrudescence of kidnapping and militant activity in Southern Algeria, because…

2) Early reports indicate the kidnappers were cigarette or drug smugglers, not AQIM. This is not entirely surprising, given that the kidnapping industry in the Sahara and Sahel have never been a solely AQIM or GSPC-driven phenomenon, and the security improvements in the region have not and will not likely ever be able to stamp out the centuries-old and well-entrenched smuggling networks that criss-cross the region. Several past kidnappings have involved the use of subcontractors or unaffiliated groups who conduct kidnappings and then sell their victims to AQIM for a cut of the fee.If the victim ends up in the hands of AQIM (and I sincerely hope she doesn’t), we will have once again witnessed this process at work.

[UPDATE: The Algerian daily El-Watan has two new pieces on the kidnapping (here and here) indicating that, according to locals and the tourist’s guide, the kidnappers were AQIM (see Priffe’s comment below). According to these reports, one kidnapper, his face uncovered, spoke to the tour guide in Mauritanian Arabic, and when asked who they were, said, “We are from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The reports also raise the question of an inside job, since according to El-Watan this part of Algeria is very secure. I had separately heard reports that the tourist was outside the “safe zone” so if the readers have any illuminating comments, please share.

However, regardless of who conducted the kidnapping, the tour operators in the region are rightly worried that the expansion of kidnappings will cut off even the trickle of tourists coming to southern Algeria, and at least one thinks ransom payments are to blame (also the Algerian government’s official position). To quote: “As long as countries continue to pay ransoms to terrorists and all kinds of bandits, there will always be hostage takings…It has become the most prized commerce in Northern Mali and Niger, whose populations, we should remember, live between the northern part of Algeria and the south, where governments do not have the means (or do not want) to attack the plague of insecurity.”

3) The Italian government reacted swiftly to the kidnapping, but not in a way France, the United States or Algeria will like. In a public announcement, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs said (my translation), “We have asked the Algerian interlocutors to not take any action that could endanger the security of the Italian citizen.”This is a pretty clear “no rescue” statement, and unless Nigerien security forces manage to track down these kidnappers, it means we are likely to move towards a long process of hostage negotiations and potentially an eventual ransom payment. Italian authorities claim the release of the last Italian hostages kidnapped in the region in 2009 came about due to “complex political and diplomatic negotiations,” but no one knows whether or not a ransom of some variety (money or prisoners) was worked out in secret.

This most recent incident raises once more the difficult question of how to react to and prevent kidnappings in the region, one goes beyond the simple dichotomy of ransoms vs. rescues that Alex Thurston has now dealt with quite admirably here and here, posts that deserve both a careful read and a lengthier response than I can give here.  Suffice it to say for the moment that this kidnapping shows once again that such crimes are an industry in the region, one that co-exists alongside cigarette smuggling, drug smuggling, human smuggling and other forms of nefarious money-making. And as long as such activities can draw in money and regional forces cannot secure these vast areas (a truly Herculean task) such kidnappings will continue, albeit at a reduced rate as tourism in the region drops and Western organizations pull their citizens out of the region.

I will keep an eye on the news as this story develops, and post news and corrections as more information emerges.

10 Responses to Quick notes on a kidnapping

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Quick notes on a kidnapping « al-Wasat – الوسط -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Africa Blog Roundup: African Protests, Algeria Kidnapping, and More « Sahel Blog

  3. priffe says:

    Latest reports http://bit.ly/gtosdC http://bit.ly/fl8zrU suggest that the kidnappers were at the border before they let the captive guide/driver go back to Djanet. Since the Algerian military are not ,likely to cross the Niger border and there is scant or nil security in the north of Niger I would presume that the hostage is already in north of Mali.
    So the rescue operation touted by the algies was in vain, which they must have known.
    The kidnapping spot was well chosen by its proximity to Niger (90 kms). The grapevine is thick in Djanet today as to how this was planned and executed; it is likely they had someone on the inside giving information on where to go, when to strike, and whom to look for. Not a random incident as implied by the suggestion that these guys were smugglers who happened to pass by.
    14 men in two Toyotas sound much more like aqim. And when they speak Mauritanian, I think their affiliation and intent is clear. As was also evident in the reported dialogue: ” One of them had their faces uncovered. He spoke Arabic Mauritania. ” They ask “where is the group of tourists” and he replies: “There are no tourists here.” The attackers searched the premises and discovered the Italian. They demand the identity papers of three Algerians (the guardian of the site, the guide and a shepherd).
    “They took away the papers and phones before asking me what agency I worked for. When I told him I was Ténéré of Kherrani, they said: ‘Tell him he must stop this activity. It is contrary to the principles of Islam. ” I wanted to know who he was and his reply was, ‘We Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’. ”
    “They blindfolded us and took us with them aboard our 4×4. We drove a long time before they abandon us at the border with Niger.”

    As to the whereabouts of the hostages in Mali, I suggest that we know less than nothing about it. Same source “close to the affairs” who said in October that they were in Timetrine now has claimed that they are no longer in Mali and also dispersed. This source is likely one of the middlemen such as the infamous mayor of Tarkint Mr. Baba Ould Sheikh, active in the lucrative trade of hostage release negotiatons since Algeria 2003, and his words should never be taken at face value.

    This incident should motivate the algies to change their attitude towards their southern neighbours. They must make an ageeement, like the Mauris with the Malians to the right of pursuit across the borders, or they will never be able to protect westerners or even their own – remember the incident when Aqim butchered a number of Alg soldiers north of Tin Zahouatine last year?
    If the algies crossed the border they could crush the Aqim camps in one short season, forcing them to move elsewhere (north of Nigeria should be attractive), Instead they are whining about the incompetence of the Malians. This can’t go on.

    Another thing to note: this was the first time a woman alone was kidnapped. This is against islam, accoriding to some scholars, even prompting them to say that this could not be Aqim.

    • Andrew Lebovich says:


      Thank you very much for your take and the information. As an aside, by pointing out the reports about traffickers conducting the kidnapping, I was not trying to imply that this was “random”; rather, I was hoping to indicate that this is really an industry, and AQIM is not tohe only party who engages in carefully thought-out kidnappings. But that seems to be moot now.

      As per your suggestions about the location of the other hostages, you’re right that we know less than nothing. And I agree that Algeria needs to step up cooperation, though I was not aware that they did not have deals with Niger and Mali over cross-border right of pursuit. Wasn’t one of the underlying points of the Tamanrasset command to smooth out those kinds of operations?

      Thanks for reading,

  4. priffe says:

    well Algiers has a long standing policy (ever since independence) that no country’s troops should be present on another country’s territory, or at least that is how they explain their standpoint (‘colonialism’). Thus they resent the French presence in the Sahel and will not acknowledge any US presence in Tam as some have insisted exists. They will support, train, equip the Malians but they won’t cross the border themselves.
    After the incident north of Tin Zahouatine Algeria was even INVITED by Mali to pursue across the border but declined. http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2010/10/01/97001-20101001FILWWW00384-sahel-deficit-de-cooperation-mali.php
    The Tam command was in existence at the time but what happened (or rather didn’t happen) goes to show that it exists only to give the Algies the upper hand in who’s controlling the region. Depressing!
    The Algerian inaction feeds the wild, wild conspiracy theories of people like Jeremy Keenan, as if there wasn’t enough of tiresome conspiracy thinkers in the desert already.
    Oh, there is so much more to be said on these matters but I’ll stop there.

  5. Tidinit says:

    Thanks Priffe. So the lady’s kidnappers are Mauritanians, franchise of AQIM. Always been wondering the purpose of the Tam center if the Algerians don’t move because of the principle of no going into any country, even invited. Difficult to believe when you are attacked and hostages taken in front of your eyes. That is why conspiracy theories flourish.

  6. priffe says:

    Hallo Tidinit, yes the Algerian inaction lends credibility to the accusations that the Algerians are on some levels involved both in GSPC/Aqims formation and activities. As does some other hard-to-explain incidents, like the kidnapping of an Austrian pair in Tunisia in 2009 – how were they taken all the way to Mali? And where is El Para? Keenan has pointed out the inconsistencies but only managed to raise more questions than provide answers, as far as I can tell.
    Last summer Keenan proposed that the Mauri attack in Mali was a decoy for the real action? – a French/Algerian attack using Alg choppers? (perhaps those near Bordj Mohktar you can see here http://bit.ly/hinR6x …and this was a setup from the Algies to fool the French?!?….and then we all got lost in his fog.
    Perhaps with a shake-up in the Algerian leadership we can get the true story from someone on the inside. Otherwise we may never know.

  7. tidinit says:

    Yes Priffe. Too complicated. I am a cnspiracy theorist too when it comes to this AQMI stuff, but I get lost on the way. We in Mauritania are also looking for someone from the inside to tell his part of the story he knows. In addition to the hostages who moved from Southern Tunisia to Northern Mali passing by Algeria or Lybia, there is also these air cocaines (huge cargos) in Mali in November 2009, January and February 2010 and no one there is telling the truth. Even the cable from wikileaks knew max 15% of the story. These bedfellows are in something and none of them will tell the truth. Knowing now the kidnappers spoke hassaniya, in no time the Moroccans will say it is Polisario, making thiker the puzzle.

    If I were good at movie making, I would be able to tell 10% of the story around AQIM and win nomination for best mystery/action move. Hope all this will stop very soon as a guerilla can never win over regular armies.

    Good blog Andrew. Will be visiting regularly.

  8. Pingback: More #AQIM Kidnapping in the Sahel | Selected Wisdom

  9. tidinit says:

    Any news about this lady?

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