By Bakari Guèye
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) last week threatened to kill five European hostages if France or its allies attempt a military operation to free them.
The January 12th AQIM statement accused a coalition including France, Algeria and Mauritania of “preparing an imminent military operation to release the hostages held by the organisation”.
The hostages were taken in two separate attacks last November: one in Timbuktu and another in the Malian town of Hombori, where two French nationals were abducted from their hotel room.
“We send this warning to France, the United Kingdom, Holland and Sweden: if they authorise this operation, it means the death of their nationals, and they themselves will be responsible for the loss of life,” the al-Qaeda communiqué continued.
According to terror expert Sheikh Tourad Ould Eli, the statement comes just three weeks after Mali and Algeria vowed to step up military co-operation against AQIM.
“It also follows on from information from military and diplomatic sources in Bamako which talks of the presence of Algerian troops in the north of Mali to assist the Malian army in its fight against insecurity and terrorism,” Ould Eli added.
Ould Eli said the al-Qaeda statement did not specify whether or not the hostages were still in Mali or moved to “one of the Sahel countries facing growing insecurity linked to the activities of that organisation and other criminal groups, along with an influx of arms, including heavy weaponry, coming from the Libyan conflict”.
However, the AQIM statement said the network was still seeking “a peaceful resolution to the hostage problem”, an apparent reference to the terror group’s predilection for ransom payments.
The organisation also claimed the attack on the tourists was a response to “aggression” by France against Sahel states. “Mali was a deliberate choice because of the involvement of Amadou [Toumani] Touré’s regime in the war against the Mujahideen, after giving in to pressure,” the terror group added.
“The united front taking shape is not to AQIM’s liking,” said Mohamed Ould Cheikh, a university researcher on terrorism.
“In April 2010, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Mali set up a joint operational military command (CEMOC) based in Tamanrasset (southern Algeria),” Ould Cheikh noted. “Supported by an intelligence centre in Algiers, its objective is to improve the co-ordination of the four armies’ activities in the fight against terrorism and to lead joint operations in each of the countries affected.”
The researcher also pointed out that “defence ministers from ten countries in North Africa and Southern Europe meet regularly to step up their actions against insecurity in this region” as part of the 5+5 dialogue. The group includes five southern European states and all five Maghreb states.