Kidnapped Europeans, AQIM, and shady dealings in northern Mali
November 25, 2011 15 Comments
After months of relative quiet in northern Mali, this week has seen a flurry of events potentially involving al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that could signal greater instability in the Sahel. Five Europeans were kidnapped and one killed this week by armed men, at a time when Sahelian countries and Europe are more and more concerned about the aftermath of the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the perceived growth of AQIM’s power and influence.
These incidents followed swiftly on the wounding of a former French army officer deeply involved in Sahelian affairs and negotiations for four French hostages held by AQIM since last September, an incident cloaked in shadow that nonetheless has shone a light on the complex world of hostage negotiations, ransom payments, and private military contractors in the heart of Central Africa.
Two kidnappings and a killing
The most recent incident took place today, when a group of armed men burst into a restaurant in the ancient city of Timbuktu’s central square, and attempted to seize four Europeans – a dual South African/British citizen, a Swede, a Dutch, and a German. According to eyewitnesses, the German, identified as an elderly man, resisted abduction and was shot dead on the spot; the three others were quickly spirited away. While no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which took place in one of Mali’s biggest tourist attractions, suspicion fell immediately on AQIM or AQIM “subcontractors” a reference to past kidnappings where traffickers seized Europeans and then sold them to the group for a fee.
In the second and decidedly more suspicious case, two French men identified as geologists working for a Malian cement company (or a South African bank, according to some reports), Serge Lazarivic and Philippe Verdon, were seized early Thursday morning by up to seven heavily armed men from their hotel in Hombori, between Mopti and Gao. Local reports indicate that the group of armed men seized and tied up the Frenchmen’s driver as well as the hotel guards, before forcing their way into the hotel. There the men similarly detained the hotel’s manager, and demanded to know the location of “the two white men,” adding, “we didn’t come for you, we came for the whites.” One of the men was supposedly beaten while resisting capture, leaving blood stains behind in the hotel. The kidnap victims were then spirited north towards northern Mali’s lightly-populated desert, where AQIM is known to have bases.
And this is where things get shady. While the two men were identified as “geologists” or “engineers” in early reports, an investigation into the men’s identities turned up two men with identical names and deep mercenary connections. A man named Philippe Verdon is said to have been arrested in 2003 in the Comoros following a coup attempt there, and had a relationship with Bob Denard, a mercenary commander extraordinaire heavily implicated in a series of unsavory dealings in Africa, including in, you guessed it, Comoros. Serge Lazirivic, for his part, reportedly owns a security company in France, is wanted for questioning in Kosovo, may have recruited mercenaries to support former President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobuto Sesi Seko during the late 1990’s. He also appears to have a very cozy relationship with French intelligence.
These revelations then beg the question: What were these men doing in Hombori? While we can’t discount the possibility that they really were geologists, the prospect that these men were actually private military contractors has led some to speculate that they were performing a security survey, or attempting to set up a security business in Mali. Others speculate that the men were, in fact, negotiating the liberation of four French hostages held by AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abu Zeid somewhere in eastern Mali.
It is interesting timing, then, that these kidnappings took place just after a former French army Colonel with strong connections with local Tuareg tribes was wounded under unclear circumstances near Gao, in the presence of a “Malian elected official.” This individual may very well turn out to be Baba Ould Sheik, the “Mayor of Tarkint” who has been a key interlocutor in a number of successful AQIM hostage negotiations in the past. RFI reports that the mysterious officer, who was hired by the French firm Vinci (whose employees, working as subcontractors for the French nuclear giant Areva, were kidnapped from Arlit) last year and purportedly helped negotiate the release of three of the French hostages held by Abou Zeid, slipped into Mali undetected, but was shot by a group of unidentified men when he refused to stop his car. They also report that he is the very same French officer who was the subject of a major Paris Match exposé recently about the murky underworld of hostage negotiators operating in the Sahel.
According to RFI and the Paris match report, this officer, who has extensive experience in the Sahel and West Africa, was a key military adviser to Chadian president Idriss Déby and several other African leaders, and was forced to “officially” quit the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) after being implicated in the disappearance of a Chadian opposition figure. Operating as a private contractor, Paris Match alleges that he proposed to the French government that he negotiate with AQIM to free the kidnapped French citizens, while also offering to help Areva secure its new uranium mine at Imouraren; he is said to have told a senior French intelligence officer that he “knows Abou Zeid” and was involved with Areva and Air France in the Sahel. The article accuses the former officer of playing a double game, drastically raising the price of ransom payments for hostages while also skimming a portion off the top for himself. And according to a Nigerien Tuareg figure who supposedly met with Abou Zeid in the Idrar des Ifoghas (in eastern Mali) as well as with Mokhtar Belmokhtar some 70 km near Timbuktu, the same officer had proposed to Belmokhtar that he be AQIM’s “intermediary” in hostage negotiations.
This level of activity shows a new aggressiveness from kidnappers in the region, though again we do not yet know whether or not the men were AQIM. Still, they were exceptionally well-informed, at least in the case of the French men kidnapped in Hombori, and these two incidents are part of a trend to push beyond the traditional areas of operation in northern Mali, perhaps in search of fresh victims operating in parts of the Sahel generally considered more secure. Hombori is in what France calls the “orange zone” considered somewhat safer than other parts of northern and eastern Mali, and the recent kidnapping of three humanitarian workers in the heavily-guarded Tindouf refugee camp, in far-Western Algeria, as well as the attempt to seize two young French men, Vincent Délory and Antoine de Léocour, from a restaurant in Niger’s capital Niamey, testify to this newfound aggressiveness.* But it is unclear if these attempts to expand kidnapping operations show that AQIM and its fellow-travelers have grown bolder in recent months, or more desperate for ransom payments as tourists and NGO workers become scarcer in the Sahel.
French soldiers (almost certainly Special Operations Forces) quickly deployed from Sévéré, near Mopti, to search for the missing Frenchmen, and an AFP journalist spotted a group of 10 French soldiers on patrol with Malian forces in Hombori. I suspect that France worked out a deal sometime in the last year allowing them to operate in Mali in the event of a situation like this, as evidence in January when French helicopters were spotted patrolling the skies above Ménaka, in eastern Mali, after the attempting kidnapping of Délory and de Léocour. French statements just before this kidnapping indicated that they had lost patience with perceived Malian complicity with traffickers and AQIM, and this deployment is likely the first sign of a more aggressive French military presence in Mali’s lightly-governed spaces. These kidnappings also spell trouble for tourism and European business interests in Mali, a country already hurting from reduced tourist revenues and deeply concerned about a renewed outbreak of Tuareg violence.
These incidents, along with the Paris Match article, may also be the start of some closer investigations into the business of hostage negotiations in the Sahel. France has in recent years has argued forcefully against ransom payments, but these recent revelations leave open the possibility that French intelligence services are involved in under-the-table dealings to free their hostages. To be clear, we do not yet know the extent of these connections, or if the specter of official French involvement in negotiations is merely speculation – after all, it’s natural that PMC’s involved in negotiations would be linked to French intelligence, since there is a very small universe of people who would have the kind of training, knowledge, and experience necessary to conduct these kinds of talks. But we may just find out more in the weeks and months to come.
*UPDATE – to clarify, Délory and de Léocour were rushed north into Mali, where the kidnapping party was ambushed by French Special Forces. The pair were killed in the ensuing exchange of fire.