DAKAR - An extremist group in West Africa is reportedly threatening to kill a Spanish hostage seized in western Algeria last October. The group is believed to have split from al-Qaida's North Africa branch last year with the aim of spreading jihad further south beyond the Sahara.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, referred to by its acronym MOJWA, emerged on the Sahelian terrorist scene in late 2011 after it kidnapped two Spanish aid workers and one Italian aid worker from a camp for Western Sahara refugees in Algeria.
MOJWA is thought to be a splinter group of al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The new group is believed to have Mauritanian leadership and draw its members from Mauritania, Mali and other sub-Saharan African countries.
The head of the Washington-based Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, J. Peter Pham, says manifestos made public by MOJWA point to two key reasons for the split.
"One was that the non-Arab members of AQIM resented an Arab predominance within that organization," said Pham. "They felt that they were not as respected or included in decision-making and leadership within the organization. The other complaint was that AQIM have become involved in trafficking of narcotics as well as persons, in kidnapping for ransom, and have strayed in the eyes of those who founded MOJWA from the path of jihad and have become essentially criminals."
News agency Agence France Presse reports that it received a written statement from MOJWA this week threatening to kill a Spanish hostage if its demands are not met. AFP reports that those demands include a ransom of 30 million euros, or $38 million, and the release of two people arrested by Mauritania in connection with the kidnapping.
Pham says Spain's track record of paying ransoms is cause for concern.
"Even if half of that amount is paid to MOJWA, it would become the record ransom," he said. "It would instantly give the group a great deal of credibility and prestige. With 15 million euros, and the prestige that goes with that, one can overnight catapult into the big leagues. From there, literally, the sky is the limit, especially given the insecurity that is characterizing most of the Sahel at the moment."
Analysts says radical ideology is gaining ground in West Africa, as seen in the emergence of militant Islamist groups like Ansar Dine in northern Mali and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Fallout from the conflict in Libya has only aggravated security concerns as well-armed former pro-Gadhafi fighters return to their countries of origin.
MOJWA is active in northern Mali, where a diverse cast of Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants seized control in the chaos following a March 22nd military coup in Bamako.
MOJWA has claimed responsibility for kidnapping seven Algerians from that nation's consul in the northern Malian town of Gao on April 5th. Negotiations are ongoing for their release.