AQIM’s new kidnapping strategy


Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – or AQIM – kidnapped two Austrian citizens in Tunisia on Feb. 22. The hostages are reportedly being held in northern Mali and Austrian authorities, with the help of Libya, are trying hard to obtain the release of their citizens.

This latest action from AQIM should not come as a surprise, for several reasons.

First, AQIM has made no secret that targeting foreign nationals has become one of their priorities. In Algeria, AQIM recently targeted U.S. and Russian contractors, and the U.N. compound in Algiers, while Western nations have warned their citizens of the risks associated with remaining in the country. AQIM also recently almost succeeded in kidnapping two French executives. After this incident, a number of French nationals (mostly women and children) left Algeria to return to safer grounds. The idea behind this strategy is to kill the tourism industry and dry out foreign investment in the region.

Second, AQIM has a tradition of self-financing its operations mostly through kidnappings, racketeering and smuggling of all kinds. Interestingly enough, the kidnapping of the two Austrian tourists mirrors the operation led by the Algerian GSPC (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), now AQIM, in 2003 under the command of Abdel Rezak al-Para. Back then, 32 European tourists (including Austrian, Swiss and German nationals) were kidnapped in the Algerian Sahara.

Seventeen of them were freed thanks to a military operation led by Algerian forces, and the remaining 14 – one hostage had died – were released six months later after a large ransom was allegedly paid by German authorities. This money was used to buy substantial quantities of sophisticated weapons that Algerian security services seized in January 2004.

Today, AQIM’s first demand was the release of a number of prisoners held in Algeria and Tunisia, but later a ransom (reportedly 5 million euros, about $7.7 million) was added, and then AQIM dropped the release condition. This proves that the money issue was in reality what this kidnapping is all about.

Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat published a letter from AQIM entitled, “Call for help from the Islamic Maghreb.” In this letter, AQIM acknowledged that it is suffering from a lack of operatives and most importantly that its elements have “an urgent need of cash.”

Clearly, if Austria were to pay the ransom, AQIM would use the funds to rearm, regroup and rehire and would be emboldened to kidnap more foreign nationals.

Third, the fact that the hostages are presumably in northern Mali is also unsurprising. AQIM has been using northern Mali (in particular Timbuktu and Kidal) as sanctuaries. This is the ideal place to install a terrorist base, since the area is almost impossible to patrol for such a poor country. This area also represents a great hiding location from U.S. satellites since it is very mountainous and full of caves. Nonetheless, terrorists need to be on the move quite often: they use Toyota Land Cruisers and refueling stations buried in the ground that they locate thanks to GPS equipment. AQIM possesses heavy weapons, mortars and ground-air missiles, among other sophisticated equipment, such as scramblers for their Thuraya satellite telephone communications.

To make matters even more complicated and unstable, the area is home to the Tuareg, a Berber group whose main military group – The Alliance – is fighting Malian authorities. On March 20 violent clashes erupted between Malian forces and the Tuareg: eight people were killed and 33 Malian military personnel were kidnapped. Interestingly, the Tuareg went from being AQIM’s ally to AQIM’s foe.

Eglasse Ag Idar, the spokesman of The Alliance, recently told the French daily Le Figaro that the Malians do not want to die fighting al-Qaida: for them, it is an Arab problem that concerns the West. He added that, on the other hand, the Tuareg are motivated to fight al-Qaida in order to defend their territory. At the beginning of this month an AQIM cell was dismantled in the area and a big fish (Abu Osama) was caught, allegedly thanks to information provided by some Tuareg tribal leaders.

It seems that AQIM is really following al-Qaida in Iraq’s modus operandi. Indeed, after having imported suicide bombings to Algeria (mostly since the April 11, 2007 attacks), then recruiting teenagers, now AQIM is kidnapping foreign nationals. The example of the Austrian hostages might just be the start of a kidnapping wave.


Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (

Comments are closed.


Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading