By Rajeh Saeed
The killings on March 8th of two Europeans who were held hostage in Nigeria shed light on the kidnapping for ransom practice used by armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The latest incident in Nigeria that claimed the lives of Chris McManus, a British citizen, and Franco Lamolinara, an Italian, reflects a growing trend by these groups of using kidnapping for ransom as a means to finance their operations.
This despite the fact that the Islamic world does not condone these methods, which are rejected by a large segment of scholars who refuse to link Islam with holding hostages.
The kidnapping of the two men was initially claimed by a group that called itself “al-Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel”. Reports from Nigeria and in the Western media suggest the group might be an al-Qaeda cell within the Boko Haram (Western Education is forbidden) Islamist group, which is engaged in attacks against the Nigerian government.
After years of limiting its kidnap operations to Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and occasionally Algeria and southern Tunisia, it would seem that al-Qaeda, through its Maghreb branch al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is currently attempting to expand its profitable “kidnapping trade” to other countries to locate new sources of funding.
According to Algerian authorities, kidnapping operations targeting Westerners in the African Sahel earned al-Qaeda an estimated 50 million euros ($66 million).
Abdel Razak Bara, advisor to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said in a speech at a United Nations meeting on terrorism financing in 2010 that terrorist groups use the money to acquire weapons and advanced logistical equipment.
Greed is probably not AQIM’s only motivation for expanding its kidnapping operations to Nigeria. Previous kidnappings led to a significant decline in the number of Western visitors to Mali and Niger, the two countries al-Qaeda had established as bases for its kidnapping operations.
With the few Westerners who risk visiting Niger and Mali now taking security measures, AQIM likely sought to move towards Nigeria, which attracts foreigners in droves to work in its oil industries.
Although Nigeria’s special forces, in conjunction with British commandos, were unable to free the hostages before they were executed by their captors, the fact that Nigeria sought to deal decisively with the kidnappers sent a clear message that the country will not tolerate hostage-taking and that al-Qaeda is not welcome in Nigeria. The group’s leader, “Abu Mohammed”, was reported by Nigerian media to have died as a result of his injuries during the attempt to rescue the hostages.
Boko Haram was quick to deny any connection to the kidnapping of the two men, suggesting that the captors, who are reported by Nigerian and British authorities to be linked to AQIM, did not necessarily seek to support Boko Haram in its ideological struggle against the Nigerian government. Instead the kidnappers came to build a base to obtain more ransom money to add to the tens of millions of dollars they collected in the past few years.
BBC reported that Philip Hammond, Britain’s Defence Secretary, said in a hearing before the House of Commons on March 13th that Boko Haram may not be linked to AQIM directly, but some Boko Haram factions have begun referring to themselves as “al-Qaeda in Nigeria”.
The kidnapping of the two Westerners confirms that the activity of al-Qaeda affiliates across Africa’s Sahel and North Africa is increasingly focused on kidnapping more than the historical struggle against the region’s ruling regimes.
AQIM may respond by saying that it conducts kidnapping operations because they provide revenue to purchase arms that in turn enable it to fight “apostate” regimes, but the current reality indicates that money has become an attractive incentive, perhaps more so than ideological justifications, for armed groups to resort to kidnapping in the name of religion. The activities of these groups suggest that they are all preoccupied with getting a “piece of the hostage-taking pie” on the Sahel.
In the past, this “trade” was the monopoly of AQIM. However, new al-Qaeda splinter groups have emerged recently that also rely on kidnapping as a source of income. Among them is a group calling itself “al-Tawhid wal Jihad in West Africa”, which kidnapped three Western aid workers (one Spanish man, one Spanish woman, and one Italian woman) from a refugee camp in south-western Algeria in October 2011.
The group, which sent out a videotape showing the hostages in December 2011, is currently negotiating their release for a reported 30 million euros ($40 million). The group reportedly broke away from al-Qaeda because it does not want to confine its activities to the North African Maghreb and Sahel and wants to expand to West Africa.
Such an expansion requires “al-Tawhid wal Jihad in West Africa” to imitate AQIM’s funding methods, notably kidnapping, as is evident in the case of the Spaniard and Italian aid workers. If the situation continues, it should not come as a surprise if more splinter groups or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups emerge in the near future, claiming to have ideological objectives to justify their activities, but do nothing other than carrying out kidnapping for ransom operations.