Quick notes on a kidnapping
February 5, 2011 10 Comments
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.
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.