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A group affiliated with Al Qaeda has been blamed for kidnappings in North Africa.
Kidnapping foreign hostages and releasing them for a ransom has become a lucrative business for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “You grab these people, you hold them for a bit and you find people pay up,” Barrett said. “So you do it again.”
In February 2008, members of the group kidnapped two Austrian tourists in Tunisia. Later that year, the terrorists abducted two Canadian diplomats who’d been traveling in Niger as part of a U.N. mission. This year, four European tourists were taken hostage in the border region between Mali and Niger. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also claimed responsibility for killing an American aid worker in Mauritania’s capital in what is thought to have been a botched kidnapping.
Mauritania, in particular, has seen an increasing number of violent attacks in the past several years. Four French tourists were shot while picnicking by the side of the road in 2007, in an attack the Maghreb Al Qaeda wing claimed as its own. The group has also claimed responsibility for two attacks on embassies in Mauritania’s capital — French and Israeli — and for an assault on a military patrol that resulted in the beheading of twelve Mauritanian soldiers near the town of Zouerate.
Mauritania has a population the size of Chicago spread across a landscape larger than Texas and New Mexico combined. Among the Sahel states, Mauritania “is clearly one of the weakest and one of the easiest to operate in, in terms of vast uncontrollable desert areas,” said Ruairi Patterson, a regional specialist for the British firm Control Risks. “It’s got a very small population, never mind a very small army, so it’s very difficult for the military to survey the entire terrain.”
Crump said Al Qaeda’s migration into Mauritania and Mali isn’t just opportunism. He sees the hand of Al Qaeda’s central leadership — all the way from its bases along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — pulling some 40 Mauritanian jihadists into the North African franchise.
“Although small in number, they bring stronger religious credentials to the group, which may help it to overcome some of its traditional internal rifts over tactics such as suicide bombing,” Crump said.
The expansion comes even as the U.S. is funding counterterrorism efforts throughout the region. And it’s not yet clear how well the operations are fighting insurgent activities.
“This is the great unknown,” Crump said, “but the continued kidnappings and other largely unhindered operations are a sign that more needs to be done.”