By August 2017, two long-term AQIM hostages, Stephen McGowan (August 2017) and Johan Gustafsson (June 2017), were released. Given that each had been held for six years, the investment AQIM had in keeping them alive and well was so vested, the assumption of either of them being released without a ransom payment seems out of the question. By JASMINE OPPERMAN.
One of the hallmarks of al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) operational tactics is kidnapping. This has not changed even after its “rebranding” effort as Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) — a “power-house” coalition between AQIM, Ansar Dine, Macina Liberation Front (MLF) and Mourabitounes. It is estimated that the kidnap-for-ransom business in the Sahel region alone has put at least $89-million in the coffers of AQIM since 2003. More than 90% of the group’s funding derives from this single financial source. The average ransom for the release of a Western hostage is $6.5-million. Johan Gustafsson was released on 26 June 2017 for a rumoured $5-million while Stephen McGowan’s release is said to have been secured by a €3.5-million payment.
AQIM has established specific guidelines for how to treat hostages in emergency situations. If capture is a possibility, AQIM’s standing instructions are that hostages must be executed. GCTAT founder and TRAC contributor, Jean-Paul Rouiller, conducted interviews with AQIM members arrested in Mauritania from 2008 to 2012 that confirmed the execution tactic as an AQIM rule: Hostages will be executed during escape attempts, failed negotiations for ransom of prisoner exchange and in response to government’s military operations to free the hostages.
This tactic by AQIM is seen in the cases of Michel Germaneau and Philippe Verdon. On 19 April 2010, Germaneau was kidnapped in northern Niger and, following a French and Mauritanian attack on AQIM, the latter announced that the hostage was killed. AQIM also announced that it had killed Verdon (July 2013) in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali.
In light of the “good news” of Stephen McGowan’s release, it cannot be forgotten that the fate of six other Western hostages, which TRAC has been monitoring, still lies in the balance of ransom demands.
The six are:
- Ken Elliott (Australian): On 16 January 2016, AQIM released a statement claiming responsibility for an attack on the Splendid Hotel, Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. An Ansar Dine spokesman indicated that they handed over two Australians they had kidnapped the day before in Burkina Faso to AQIM’s Sahara Emirate. Jocelyn Elliott was released in February 2016.
- Lulian Ghergut (Romanian): Mourabitounes/al-Qaeda in West Africa kidnapped a Romanian security officer, named by local media as Lulian Ghergut. He was seized from the Tambao manganese mining project in northern Burkina Faso on 4 April, 2015. Witnesses told local media that they saw him being driven in the direction of Mali’s desert.
- Beatrice Stockley (Swiss): On 8 January 2016, armed men kidnapped a Swiss missionary from her home in Timbuktu, nearly four years after she was abducted by Islamist militants from the same house, Malian and Swiss authorities said. AQIM’s Sahara Emirate is the most likely suspect to be holding her.
- Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti (Columbian) : On 7 February 2017, a group of armed men broke into the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate Parish in Karangasso village near the Burkina Faso border and kidnapped the 59-year-old nun.
- Sophie Petronin (French): On 24 December 2016, Sophie Petronin was abducted in the city of Gao, Mali. Petronin was an aid worker affiliated with Aide Gao, a small non-profit that helps children suffering from malnutrition.
- Jeffery Woodke (American): On 14 October 2016, Jeffery Woodke, a 55-year-old US NGO worker, was kidnapped in Abalak, northeast of the capital Niamey. Unverified information indicates that the US worker was taken to Mali. Initial reports also referred to a Nigerian guard and another person who were killed during the kidnapping. Local authorities believe that Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) kidnapped Woodke over a dispute about a stolen drug shipment involving a local government official.
With the January 2016 of kidnappings of Stockley, Ken and Jocelyn Elliott combined with the January “proof of life” videos of the South African McGowan and the Swedish national Johan Gudtafsson, AQIM announced quite loudly that not only do they still have Western hostages but are actively acquiring more. Tending to hostages is a way of life for AQIM; it’s the way they feed their families, buy new weapons, house their cadres. As long as ransoms are being paid, AQIM is happy to oblige, doing the dirty work of taking people captive. DM
Jasmine Opperman is Director for Africa at the Terrorism, Research & Analysis Consortium – TRAC