Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has released a video depicting seven kidnapped Westerners. The video was received by Mauritanian news agency ANI, which indicates that all the captives seemed to be in good health. France’s Foreign Ministry has announced that the hostage video seems to be “credible.”
The newly released video depicts seven hostages, including four Frenchmen and a Dutchman, who were kidnapped from a uranium compound in northern Niger exactly three years ago; along with a Swede and a South African who were abducted from a hostel in Timbuktu in northern Mali November 2011 in an attack that left a German man dead. In the video, which was released to Mauritanian news agency ANI, Frenchman Daniel Larribe, 61, introduces himself as the head of the French group, stating that he was kidnapped by militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to ANI, Mr. Larribe states that he is “…in good health but threatened with death,” adding that he holds the French authorities responsible for his fate. The video also includes statements from the other French hostages, including Pierre Legrand, Theirry Dol and Marc Feret as well as South African Stephen Malcolm, Dutchman Sjaak Rijke and Swede Johna Gustafsson. It also shows the French hostages reportedly urging the French administration, as well as their family members, to work for their release. At the time of their kidnapping, the four Frenchmen were mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom. They were kidnapped in Arlit, northern Niger, on 16 September 2010. At the time, Daniel’s wife, Francoise Larribe, was also captured however she was released in 2011.
Although it remains unclear when the video was made, officials from ANI have indicated that the messages recorded by the French hostages were made in June of this year. Furthermore, this is the first video that is said to depict the men since France launched an intervention in Mali in January after al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to overrun the capital Bamako.
According French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Philippe Lalliot, “based on an initial analysis, the video seems credible to us and provides new proof of life of the four French hostages kidnaped in Arlit (northern Niger) on September 16, 2010,” adding that the footage was being authenticated.
AQIM is currently believed to be holding eight European hostages, including five French nationals. According to French prosecutors, one of the French hostages, Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 and found dead earlier this year, was executed with a shot to the head. Officials in France believe that his killing was in retaliation to France’s intervention in Mali. A fifth hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was kidnapped along with Mr. Verdon from their hotel in Hombori on the night of 24 November 2011. Shortly after their kidnapping, the families of the two men insisted that they were not mercenaries or secret service agents. These comments were in response to threats made by AQIM militants stating that the two hostages would be killed as they were French spies.
While the newly released video depicts the pleas of the French hostages for their release, it is highly unlikely that the French government will get involved, and that their plight will be publicly discussed. Although in July of this year French President Francois Hollande announced that France was “doing everything” to bring the hostages back, he indicated that officials would “…not talk so as not to complicate a situation which is bad enough.”
An al-Qaeda-linked militia that was founded by Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced on Thursday that it would be joining forces with another armed group in order to take revenge against France for its military offensive in Mali. While this move is no surprise to analysts, as the two groups have previously collaborated in carrying out regional attacks, it does cement the fact that the Sahel region will remain the new focal point for global counter-insurgency efforts.
Reports surfaced on Thursday that Belmokhtar’s Mauritanian-based al-Mulathameen Brigade (the Brigade of the Masked Ones) along with Malian-based terrorist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is believed to be led by Ahmed Ould Amer, have joined forces under one banner in a bid to unite Muslims and to target French interests in the West African region. In a statement that was published by Mauritanian news agency Nouakchott News Agency (ANI), the two groups indicated that “your brothers in MUJAO and al-Mulathameen announced their union and fusion in one movement called al-Murabitoun, to unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal, from the Nile to the Atlantic.” Belmokhtar and Ould Amer are said to have ceded control of al-Murabitoun to another leader. Although he has not been named, reliable sources indicate that the new commander has fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000’s. Reports also indicate that unlike the leaders of most of the armed organizations in the region, this new leader may not be Algerian.
The merger between the two groups was first reported by ANI, which has long been a reliable source of information pertaining to jihadist activities in West Africa. In an excerpt of the group’s statement, Belmokhtar indicates that he decided not to assume the leadership of al-Murabitoun in order to “empower a new generation of leaders.” Further excerpts of al-Murabitoun’s first statement also threaten France and its allies in the region and call upon Muslims to target French interests everywhere. The document states that “we say to France and its allies in the region, receive the glad tidings of what will harm you, for the mujahideen have gathered against you and they pledged to deter your armies and destroy your plans and projects. By the grace of Allah, they are more firm and strong in your face, and your new war only increased their certitude, resolve and determination.”
Previously believed to have been killed, Belmokhtar is a one-eyed Algerian former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2003, he was designated a foreign terrorist by the United States, with the State Department offering a US $5 million reward for information that would lead to his capture. He broke away from AQIM in 2012 in a bid to form a new group that would expand its beliefs of forming an Islamist state. In March of this year, it had been reported that he was killed in action in northern Mali. Although the reports of his death were announced by the Chadian military, they were never confirmed by France or the United States. Currently Belmokhtar remains at large. He is believed to be the mastermind behind January’s siege of an Algerian gas plant in which thirty-eight hostages were killed. MUJAO is though to be led by Mauritanian ethnic Tuareg Ahmed Ould Amer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ahmed Telmissi.” The group also broke away from AQIM in mid-2011 with the apparent goal of spreading jihad into areas outside of AQIM’s scope. It was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year and was responsible for imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.
Despite previously separating themselves from AQIM, citing leadership issues and desires of expanding their control, both groups continued to cooperate and fight alongside AQIM fighters in Mali and in other regions of West Africa. In late May of this year, the two groups targeted a military barracks in Agadez, Niger and a uranium mine in Arlit which supplies French nuclear reactors. The attack in Agadez was reportedly executed by a five-man suicide assault team which resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people. The attack in Arlit was reportedly carried out as a means of attempting to cripple France. Shortly after the attacks, Belmokhtar indicated that the incidents had been carried out as a form of avenge for the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander who was killed by French forces in northern Mali earlier this year. Consequently this merger comes with minimal surprise as MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s forces have already forged a working relationship. Thursday’s announcement just makes this relationship official. However many questions still linger as to whether such a merger will have any impact within a region that continues to be rocked by instability.
On the one hand, in examining Mali, the country no longer seems to be the central hub it was a year ago. The recently held peaceful presidential elections, which resulted in the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, coupled with 12,600 UN troops that are stationed on the ground, are a move to fill the security vacuum and to stabilize the country by uniting the north and south. However when looking at the greater Sahel region, many vulnerabilities continue to exist in a region of Africa that is sparsely populated and prone to poverty, food insecurity and estrangement from regional governments. The Sahel region continues to see high threats of kidnap and terrorist attacks. These threats, which were further heightened following the French military intervention in Mali, are highly likely to occur again. Furthermore, there are currently at least thirteen hostages being held in the Sahel and surrounding regions, which includes Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria. Over the years, many have been killed and threats of kidnappings, especially of French and Western nationals, will likely continue. The surrounding areas also contain threats that may lead to a further destabilization of the region. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria are waging their own wars at home. While reports that Boko Haram militants may have been trained by al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Mali further fuels the notions the movement of terrorists in the Sahel and surrounding regions continues to be unaffected. The militant groups now joining forces have gained reputations for evading capture and continuing to launch attacks despite security forces’ concentrated efforts to stop them.
On the other hand, given the long history of al-Qaeda-linked forces making and breaking alliances, the real question remains whether this official union will change anything. Many doubt that al-Murabitoun can bring anything new to the table and that instead this could signify another reorganization in an attempt to strengthen the group, remain relevant and give it a new and better direction. The timing of this announcement is also critical as it comes just two weeks after elections were held in Mali and a new President was selected. This alliance may be an attempt to remind regional actors and international officials that while Mali has won a victory by carrying out successful elections, the war is far from over.
In a statement that was published on Sunday, Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has confirmed that one of its top leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was killed in fighting in Mali. The confirmation from the terrorist group comes three months after officials in Chad and France announced the leaders’ death.
Algerian-born Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, considered to have been one of the most radical leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed “on the battlefield defending Umma (the Muslim community) and Sharia law.” This is according to a statement that was released on Sunday and carried by ANI, which is a private Mauritanian news agency. According to ANI director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abou Al-Maali, “it is the first time that an AQIM statement officially referred to the death of Abou Zeid.” The statement however provided no date for his death. Back in March, officials in Paris had announced that Abou Zeid was killed after France led an offensive to remove al-Qaeda-linked groups from the northern regions of Mali. Both France and Chad have indicated that the 46-year-old militant was killed at the end of February.
Born in Debdeb, Algeria, which is located close to the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a young activist in the FIS Islamist movement which won the country’s first democratic elections in 1991 but which was denied power. He then disappeared underground and remained in silence for most of the 1990’s. He re-emerged in 2003 as second in command of the GSPC, which kidnapped dozens of foreigners in southern Algeria. The group, along with several other organizations, would later evolve into AQIM. According to court documents Abou Zeid, whose real name was Mohamed Ghdir, was considered to be a deputy to AQIM’s “Saharan emir” Yahia Djouadi. He commanded a battalion of fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, which was known as Tareq ibn Ziyan, named after an eighth-century Muslim military commander.
Meanwhile in Mali, a female lawmaker is set to run for President in elections which are due to be held next month. Aissata Cise Haidara, 54, announced her candidacy on Saturday at a rally which was attended by several thousand supporters, composed mainly of women and young people. During the rally, she stated that “I am a candidate, not just to make up the numbers but to play a role in the rebuilding of Mali, which has become an unrecognizable country today.” She further indicated that “we must develop all of Mali although more must be done in the north. But we have to be careful because if you focus development in the north, the south will itself revolt.” Ms. Haidara is an MP for Bourem, which is situated in northern Mali. Amongst other candidates in the running for the presidency are former prime ministers Soumana Sacko and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
International mediators have so far failed to secure an agreement between Mali’s Interim President and the northern rebels. Although talks last weekend have brought the two groups closer, an agreement is necessary in order to enable elections to go ahead as planned on 28 July. The MNLA indicated last week that it was ready to sign an accord proposed by Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator, however current Mali President Dioncounda Traore has yet to agree. Consequently the talks are continuing between the two groups. The coming presidential elections are seen as a key step in the recovery of Mali.
Unconfirmed reports have indicated that a French hostage has been executed in Mali. A man claiming to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stated in a telephone call to Mauritania’s Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) news agency that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March 2013 in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” Although the news agency could not confirm whether or not the spokesman is in fact a member of AQIM, ANI did confirm that they had received a phone call from a man who presented himself as Al-Qairawani and who claimed that the “spy” Verdon had been executed. He further stated that “the French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages.” In the past, al-Qaeda groups have often used ANI in order to broadcast their claims or statements, which often turn out to be true.
Mr. Verdon was seized on the night of 24 November 2011 along with Serge Lazarevic. According to their families, the two men had been on a business trip when they were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, in northeastern Mali. The families of the two men have however denied that they were secret service agents. Shortly after the kidnapping, AQIM claimed responsibility and in August 2012, a video depicting Mr. Verdon describing the “difficult living conditions” was released.
Early Wednesday morning, a French Foreign Office spokesman indicated that they were attempting to verify the reports of the killing. Currently, no further information has been provided however a spokesman for the French Foreign Office has confirmed that the family of Mr. Verdon has been notified. If these reports are confirmed to be true, it will be a worrying development for Paris as it will greatly increase the risk of those hostages who are being held in Africa. There are still some fourteen French nationals who are being held in West Africa, including at least six who are being held in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates. Over the past few weeks, a number of the hostages‘ families have expressed their growing fears for their loved ones in light of the ongoing French intervention in Mali.