Hostage Killings Raise Tension between France and Niger

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 4

French victims of AQIM murders, Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory.

Two French citizens, Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory, were kidnapped on January 7 from a restaurant in the residential area of Plateu in Niger’s capital, Niamey (L’Express, January 9). De Léocour had worked for several years in the country and was there to marry a local Muslim woman the following week. Delory was his best man and arrived in Niger on the day of the kidnapping (Radio France Internationale, January 12).  

The two hostages were then taken through the desert to northern Mali. Shortly after, French and Nigerien troops launched two failed operations to rescue the hostages. The two men were found dead at the border between Niger and Mali, but it was not clear how they died. Four kidnappers and three members of Niger’s security forces were killed in the operation as well (al-Jazeera, January10). Immediately after the failed attempt to rescue the hostages, French and Malian sources claimed that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was responsible for the kidnapping and killing of the two Frenchmen.

AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnapping only a few days after. Through a message to Reuters, the group claimed responsibility for the abductions but did not provide any explanation as to how the hostages died (Reuters Africa, January 13). Two days later, AQIM claimed responsibility for killing one of the hostages (Jeune Afrique, January 15). The main suspects belong to the faction led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an AQIM Amir active in the Sahel region and a key member of the organization (Jeune Afrique, January 12).

The circumstances of this event are largely unclear. First of all, it is still uncertain how the two hostages died. Paris chief prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said that de Léocour died after being shot once in the face, while five arm wounds, as well as several burns, were found on Delory’s body (AFP, January 13). After the failed rescue, France and Niger gave different versions of event. French Defense Minister Alain Juppé, in West Africa for some diplomatic meetings, decided to go to Niamey after the operation as well (Gabonews, January 9). Juppé said that the hostages had been killed in cold blood before the arrival of French and Nigerien troops. Moreover, he added that Nigerien authorities had detained two members of AQIM considered to be suspects in the abduction. Those men were supposedly under interrogation. Paris also suspected that the two men wearing uniforms of the Niger Gendarmerie found dead after the operation in northern Mali (15 kilometers from Tabankor) were partners of the kidnappers. Niamey strongly denied these allegations, claiming that the two men with the gendarme uniforms were following the kidnappers and were killed in an ambush by terrorists. Niger Home Minister Ousmane Cissé also denied that any terrorist suspects were being held, claiming that France did not transfer any suspects to Nigerien authorities (L’Humanité, January 14). However, the French Defense Ministry said the uniformed Nigeriens fought against French forces (AFP, January 13).

Before this attack, Niamey was considered a safe city (Le Nouvel Observateur, January 11). The area where the abduction was carried out, Plateau, is described in the recent work of a French anthropologist as a quarter “with many NGO headquarters, private enterprises, administrative buildings and high standard housing.” [1] Normally, such areas in the cities of developing countries are better controlled than others. Therefore, this action demonstrates an increased operational capability to allow the kidnapping of Western citizens in the heart of the capital city, in areas in which security should be better than elsewhere. Being able to operate under such circumstances could mean that Niger security forces are either unable to guarantee an adequate level of security in the most important areas of the capital or that the kidnappers could have been helped by agents within the security structure. In West Africa the corruption of policemen and security personnel is very common and it cannot be completely excluded that the kidnappers had internal partners.

The killings of the two Frenchmen represent the second failure of a French-led rescue operation in the area, after the killing of Michel Germaneau by his AQIM captors in July 2010 (see Terrorism Monitor, September 23, 2010).  The possibility that a local criminal gang took the hostages with the intention of selling them to AQIM later cannot be excluded. However, AQIM gave political direction to the operation. The different factions of AQIM operating in the Sahel are competing against each other to gain power and prestige within the overall organization. The kidnapping of foreigners is a favored tactic since it can provide money to the faction if a ransom is paid, or “jihadi prestige” if the hostages are killed.

When the hostages are French, there is also another dimension to take into account. Paris is the most highly involved external power in the region, for strategic and historical reasons. A French failure, therefore, is a success for AQIM. Fostering divisions between France and its regional allies – as is the case now with the tensions between Paris and Niamey – is another aim of AQIM, which fights France because of its colonial past in the region. AQIM still holds five French hostages kidnapped in September from the Niger town of Arlit. The men are workers of the Areva and Satom companies involved in uranium operations there. In the Niamey case, the abduction of de Léocour and Delory seems to be a random event. However, French hostages are the most valuable among different Western nationalities for AQIM. Moreover, the kidnapping of foreigners is a formidable means of damaging tourism in the region, one of the major sources of income for Sahelian nations (Terrorism Monitor, October 28, 2010). In AQIM’s calculations, affecting the economic stability of the chronically poor and unstable nations of the Sahel should weaken these countries while driving them away from France.

Note:

1. Mirco Göpfert, “Security in nocturnal Niamey. Preliminary reflections and conceptual outlook”, Sociétés politiques comparées, n°18, October 2009, p. 14, available at:  http://www.fasopo.org/reasopo/n18/article.pdf.