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Kidnappings of foreigners is on the rise in North Africa as criminal cells seek financial and political gain.
Four Saudis were killed and three seriously wounded in the latest of a series of kidnapping attempts as they were ambushed in the western Tillaberi region of Niger on Monday.
According to a report in the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat the assailants were attempting to kidnap the Saudis with the intention of passing them on to Al-Qa'ida for profit.
"By any standard the kidnappings are lucrative," Geoff Porter, Director in Eurasia Group's Middle East and Africa division told The Media Line. "By local standards of the Sahara, the kidnappings are astoundingly lucrative."
Ransoms are rumored to reach millions of dollars.
"Most Nigerians and a large number of Malian live on less than a dollar a day. Obviously, the kidnappings have their associated expenses, so ransoms are not pure profit, but the profit margin has to be higher than many other legal activities in the Sahara."
Monday's incident went afoul when one of the Saudis opened fire in self-defense and triggered an exchange of fire, the report claimed.
The kidnappers' cell numbers some 30 people and operates mostly on the border between Mali and Niger, and in holiday resorts. Tourists, especially Westerners, are reportedly targeted and handed over to Al-Qa'ida for a cut of the ransom money subsequently paid by governments.
Algerian sources said a cell of Arab Nigerians headed by a weapons smuggler identified by the initials M.I. planned Monday's ambush with the intention of selling them to senior Al-Qa'ida member, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Belmokhtar is associated with Al-Qa'ida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian terrorist group aligned with the global Al-Qa'ida.
"In the majority of instances the kidnappers' motives seem to be purely financial," Porter said. "There is one active AQIM member in the Sahara, Abdel Hamid Abu Zaid, who seems to be driven by genuine Salafi-Jihadi hostility toward non-Muslims and Europeans. He seems, however, to be in the distinct minority and even other AQIM members, for example Mokhtar Belmokhtar, seem to be motivated by profit rather than ideology."
AQIM has claimed the majority of kidnappings that have plagued North Africa for the past year. The organization has also claimed responsibility for the abduction of an Italian couple earlier this month in Mauritania and the kidnapping of three Spanish nationals in Mauritania in late November.
A spokesman for the organization told Al-Arabiyya satellite channel that the abduction of the Italians was tied to what he called Italy's crime in Iraq and Afghanistan. Italy says it will not negotiate with the terror organization and that it will not change its policies in Afghanistan.
"The number of kidnappings has risen since December 2008," said Louis Caprioli, Director of the Department of International Security at GEOS, a risk management company.
"There are several reasons for this," he told The Media Line. "First, AQIM has intensified its presence in Mauritania, Algeria and in the whole Sahel region."
"Second, they are taking advantage of people from Mali and Mauritania to support them and lead their actions in those countries. They're benefiting from the many cells in those countries."
"Another reason is that the security services in Mauritania, Mali and Niger do not have the equipment or the ability to fight these organizations," Caprioli added. "There's a huge difficulty in controlling this desert region of the Sahel."
"Historically the Sahel is a region where a lot of illegal trafficking takes place," he explained. "Cigarettes, drugs, stolen cars and weapons - all this illegal trafficking has increased the criminality rate in this region. The illegal weapons trafficking benefited from the civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast."
Governments very rarely admit they have paid ransom to secure the release of their nationals, Caprioli said.
"I think that when a hostage is liberated it's not because of the kindness of the kidnappers," Caprioli said. "It's not a good solution but the governments don't have other solutions. The public opinion is also pressuring the governments to pay, so it's their only solution. One of the difficulties in the region is that the liberation of hostages by military means is really difficult. The problem is that the armies in Niger, Mauritania and Mali do not have the material means to lead operations to release hostages. Add to this the problem that usually the hostages are held in regions like north Mali, which are very difficult to access. They're held in no-man's land."
Governments in the region are often prevented from accepting military assistance from foreign governments due to sovereignty considerations.
"While states may oppose paying ransoms, many companies and some individuals buy Kidnap-and-Ransom insurance," Porter said. "These pay out a ransom in the event of being taken hostage."
"Foreign firms that operate in kidnap-vulnerable areas include the cost of K&R insurance in their operating budgets," he added. "Obviously if ransoms were no longer being paid that would remove a huge incentive for the kidnappers, but when someone you know has been kidnapped, you are no longer looking at patterns and trends. Instead, you're focusing on resolving one particular situation and you pay the ransom."
"The payment of ransoms has demonstrated that money can be made taking hostages," Porter explained. "Eventually the pace of kidnappings will level out, and then decline as the number of foreigners traveling to the region decreases. Travelers will become more and more aware of the risk and will no longer visit or pass through areas with a high likelihood of being kidnapped."
Kidnappings that have taken place in North Africa over the past year:
- December 2008. Two Canadian diplomats working for the United Nations are kidnapped in Niger. AQIM claims responsibility. They were released in April. Canada said no ransom was paid.
- January 2009. Four Western tourists - two Swiss, one British and a German are kidnapped on the border of Niger and Mali. AQIM claimed responsibility. One Swiss and the German are released in April 2009 with no details given on the conditions of their release. The second Swiss is released in July. British tourist Edwin Dyer is killed by his captors in June 2009.
- November 2009 - Three Spanish aid workers are kidnapped in Mauritania. AQIM claims responsibility.
- December 2009 - two Italians are kidnapped in Mauritania. AQIM claims responsibility
- AQIM claims it is holding a French man kidnapped in Mali