Kidnapping westerners is a lucrative business in the Sahel

Analysts blame multimillion-dollar payouts for encouraging an increase in the number of abductions by al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb.

An image from an intelligence group shows the Austrian hostages Wolfgang Ebner, centre, and Andrea Kloiber, face blurred, who were abducted in Tunisia and reportedly fetched a ransom of US$6.4 million.
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RABAT // One evening last month, Pierre Camette, a French botanist, returned to his hotel in Menaka, Mali, where he cultivates a plant used to fight malaria, and has not been heard from since.

Last week, Algerian militants linked to al Qa'eda claimed in a statement broadcast on Al Jazeera to be holding Mr Camette, as well as three Spanish aid workers abducted at gunpoint last month in Mauritania. The kidnappings are the latest show of force by al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is rapidly developing a taste for snatching westerners. This poses a dilemma for governments faced with the option of ransoming their citizens, a practice that Algeria and the United States say is increasingly helping fund terrorism in the region and are struggling to discourage. The statement did not detail AQIM's demands, but said these would be conveyed soon to the Spanish and French governments.

Formerly the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, AQIM arose amid the civil war in Algeria that killed more than 150,000 during the 1990s. The group seeks to establish an Islamic state and continues to stage bomb attacks, mainly on government forces east of the capital, Algiers. While Algerian forces have squeezed AQIM in the north, the group's Saharan bands have gained strength, today forming a southern wing that analysts say serves chiefly to secure funding.

In 2003, AQIM burst into headlines by kidnapping 32 mainly German tourists in southern Algeria. One captive died of heat exhaustion and some were rescued by Algerian police, but others were purportedly traded for around US$6 million (Dh22m) from the German government. "That set up the model," said Jon Marks, a North Africa analyst and the head of Cross-Border Intelligence, a British risk assessment firm. Since then, "the money from ransoms has helped gangs that are partly criminal and partly Islamist to come together in this peculiar Saharan underground".

The kidnappings' alleged mastermind, an Algerian former paratrooper named Amari Saifi and known as "El Para", was reportedly arrested in Chad and turned over to Algerian authorities. Nevertheless, AQIM has spread in the Sahel, a lawless strip of plains and scrub along the Sahara's southern border. Analysts say the group is probably as involved in smuggling as in ideologically driven militancy. It is believed to be dominated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a mysterious figure periodically reported killed or captured only to reappear again in Algerian press reports.

"There's a huge amount of claim and counterclaim," said Mr Marks. "And if you look at some of the individuals involved, the story never quite adds up." What is clear is AQIM's accelerated militancy in the Sahel after pledging allegiance to al Qa'eda in 2006 and adopting its current name in January 2007. The group has since claimed responsibility for gunning down four French tourists in Mauritania, shooting dead an American teacher and attacking the French and Israeli embassies in Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, and beheading 12 Mauritanian soldiers near the mining town of Zouerate.

Meanwhile, AQIM has turned the abduction of westerners into a lucrative business, analysts said. While governments routinely deny paying ransoms, somewhere money is changing hands. "Around 80 per cent of their funding comes from ransoms," said Salima Tlemcani, an AQIM expert with Algeria's El Watan, a leading independent newspaper. Cash payments leave the Sahara in the form of weapons and telecommunications gear for the group's northern wing, she said.

Last year, AQIM swapped two Austrian tourists snatched in Tunisia for a ransom of up to $6.4m. This year, the group received a reported 5m euros (Dh26m) for the release of two Canadian diplomats seized in Niger, and is believed to have scored big with the abduction of four European tourists in the country. Two Swiss and a German were freed. But Edwin Dyer, an Englishman, was beheaded in May after Britain refused to release Abu Qatada, a Jordanian al Qa'eda leader. It is believed that AQIM also wanted a ransom, which Britain opposes as a matter of policy.

Algeria wants other countries to follow suit, arguing that ransoms undermine counter-terrorism efforts by funding AQIM and encouraging kidnapping. In July, Algerian diplomats pushed that message at a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Egypt, and president Abdelaziz Bouteflika emphasised it while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September. Algeria plans to submit a draft resolution to the UN Security Council banning ransoms to terrorist groups.

While genuine, Algeria's position also helps it cosy up to the US, said Mr Marks. Algerian leaders "may disagree with western policy on other issues, but on this one they'd like common cause". The US opposes all negotiations with terrorist groups, a policy the administration of President Barack Obama wants to promote internationally. "This administration plans to make broader acceptance of the no-concessions approach an important initiative," said Daniel Benjamin, the US state department's counter-terrorism chief, addressing a senate foreign relations subcommittee last month. "We have seen that, over time, kidnappers lose interest in nationals of countries that adhere to such a policy."

Bayes Ag Mohamed, the mayor of Menaka, Mali, where Mr Camette was kidnapped, agrees, reported Agence France-Presse. A ransom, he said, would "only encourage people to kidnap peaceful citizens".