Funerals have been held in France for two Frenchmen kidnapped in Niger this month and later found dead following a failed rescue attempt by French and Nigerien military forces. The terrorist group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. Security analysts say the kidnappings are evidence of the group's expanding operations in the Sahel.
Analysts say the kidnappings of the two Frenchmen from a busy restaurant in Niger's capital on January 7 was a bold move by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
J. Peter Pham is a Sahel security analyst and senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. He says the kidnappings are consistent with a trend that's been going on for the last year and a half.
“The al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb operational capacity has been expanded, not because [...] all of a sudden they have gotten a huge number of recruits, but what they are doing with some of the resources that they are getting from the kidnappings and smuggling and other operations is they are plowing some of it back into operations by subcontracting out actual kidnappings and other operations,” Pham said.
Pham says this gives the group the ability to take hostages from places it normally does not operate.
“So it is a vicious circle where ransoms bring them more resources, which bring them more effective operations, more deadly operations, which then cycle back around to more resources,” he added. “So it is a spiral downward here.”
In the case of the two dead Frenchmen, it was the first time hostages have been taken from a capital city instead of more remote regions along the Sahel's porous borders.
Seven other hostages, including five French nationals, one Togolese and one Madagascan, are still being held. They were abducted in September from a French uranium mine in Niger.
France's refusal to pay a ransom and instead engage al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb comes with its own risks, though.
Former French ambassador to Senegal and Sahel expert Jean-Christophe Rufin says says there is recognition from France and other countries that criminal and terrorist activity cannot be defeated by military incursions alone. He says France can help these countries react by different means, with development as well, to avoid the proliferation of these terrorist movements.
Pham says an example of this is the U.S.-led military training drills in the region that include a humanitarian component as well as counter-terrorism exercises.