A French engineer in the northern Nigerian province of Katsina was abducted from his residence by a group of gunmen on Thursday evening. The militants are reported to have killed a security guard and one civilian, and may be holding the Frenchman in an attempt to collect ransom.
French President Francois Hollande suggested during a Friday interview with Europe 1 Radio that the abduction was carried out not by Boko Haram, a terrorist group that is based in Nigeria, but by allies of a broader organization that has lately been gaining control further north: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
“[The victim] was captured by a heavily armed group which killed two Nigerians and is probably linked to AQIM or the groups which are today in Mali,” he said.
Boko Haram is an insurgent group that seeks to eradicate Western influences in the country and impose Shariah, or Islamic law. The group has killed thousands of people over the last few years but does not typically resort to kidnapping.
AQIM, on the other hand, has made kidnapping for ransom its main source of income – and this has been quite lucrative. Gen. Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. military’s Africa Command, or Africom, has called AQIM the wealthiest of all al-Qaeda affiliates.
AQIM first evolved out of an Islamist movement that fought – and lost – against the government in Algeria’s 1991-2002 civil war. The militants headed south and have since gained more of a presence in the Sahel, the band of semi-arid land just south of the Sahara Desert. They claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda for tactical reasons and were formally acknowledged by the global organization’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2006.
Unlike some other branches and allies of al-Qaeda, AQIM has posed little threat to Western societies. For years, it focused primarily on North Africa and the poverty-stricken countries that straddle the Sahel. The organization has never been implicated in a terrorist attack on European or Western soil, though militants – including suicide bombers – did have a strong presence in Iraq during the 2003-2011 U.S. and U.K.-led occupation there.
Two recent developments have strengthened AQIM: the 2011 uprising in Libya and the collapse of the government of Mali.
During the Libyan conflict, many Sahelian nomads, including jihadists, were hired as mercenary fighters to support the regime of Moammar Gaddafi. The militants made use of Libyan weaponry, and held onto their guns when the revolt was over. The arms came in handy in 2012, when insurgents rolled into northern Mali and seized a swath of land the size of France. Meanwhile, down in the capital city of Bamako, the government was overthrown by army members. The resulting disarray has given AQIM members the time and space to set up training camps and establish a new base of operations.
These developments could turn AQIM into a global force to be reckoned with, said Gen. Ham at a policy seminar this year. But he added that AQIM and various other groups in the region are not monolithic organizations; different factions have different aims, and AQIM as a whole is in constant flux: an endlessly shifting web of alliances.
“Most notably, I would say that the linkages between al-Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials, which can be quite dangerous,” said Ham.
Given these links, Hollande’s assertion that al-Qaeda members carried out the engineer’s kidnapping in Boko Haram’s territory isn’t much of a stretch. But the French president may also be using the incident to make a case for a planned military intervention in Mali to oust AQIM. The plan was formally approved by the UN Security Council on Thursday and will be carried out by African troops sometime next year. Hollande has promised not to send combat troops, but France will likely help the African soldiers with funding, training and logistics support.
Among Western powers, France has been especially vocal in its support for a military offensive to take back Mali’s northern land. Paris traditionally plays a strong diplomatic role in Africa, and Hollande is further motivated by the fact that six French citizens were already being held hostage by AQIM militants before the engineer was abducted on Thursday. Furthermore, France and other world powers are keen to stabilize Mali lest it become a base for extremists to launch attacks in Europe.
In an interview this month with France24, Hollande said that kidnappings would not convince him to negotiate with “terrorists who impose Shariah, cut off people’s hands and destroy monuments.”
But, he added, there was no question that AQIM should not be allowed to lay down roots in Mali and form partnerships with other jihadist groups in the region.
“We must cut off that road to terrorists.”