Kidnappings in the Sahel – a favoured weapon of war

Insurgents use kidnapping to recruit, spy and grow in Africa’s already unstable Sahel region.

Over 180 kidnappings were recorded in the war-torn countries of Mali and Burkina Faso in the first half of 2023 – an average of one a day. This aligns with the trend in recent years, which has seen the kidnapping industry expand since 2019, with about 400 victims in each of the two countries every year. Most victims are Sahelian, as communities are caught in the crossfire between conflicting parties.

Kidnappings are primarily an instrument of war, used strategically by opposing sides to achieve their goals. Although abductions of foreigners for ransom still happen, there has been a shift to targeting Sahelians, driven by insurgents’ expansionist goals.

JNIM kidnappings aim to intimidate locals, gather data and reduce threats to becoming established

Violent extremist and rebel groups, local self-defence militias (state-affiliated or not) and security and defence forces all engage in kidnappings. Violent extremists are the main perpetrators, in particular Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Security forces and their auxiliaries carry out abductions for counter-insurgency purposes, while extremists use it as an expansion and consolidation strategy. Profit through ransom features only as a secondary motivation.

Regions of Mali

 Regions of Mali

Source: ISS
(click on the map for the full size image)

This is in sharp contrast with the early 2000s, when kidnapping was predominantly financially motivated. Then, groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and operating from southern Algeria moved into northern Mali and Niger. Between 2003 and 2012, almost 100 Westerners (primarily tourists, who comprised most of the victims at the time) were abducted in the Sahel.

Over that period, total ransoms were estimated at nearly US$90 million for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb alone. Kidnapping was extremely lucrative and arguably the biggest source of financing for al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel. The money helped insurgents expand and consolidate across the region.

When Mali’s conflict began in 2012, kidnappings of Westerners declined sharply, largely due to the scarcity of targets. Western presence in the Sahel became regulated and securitised partly because of the kidnapping threat. But the attacks didn’t stop. Instead, they evolved with the conflict, as it spread from northern to central Mali in 2015, to northern Burkina Faso in 2016, eastern Burkina Faso in 2018 and to coastal West Africa since 2020.

While JNIM still commits kidnapping for ransom, financing is no longer the main driver

JNIM has been the main driver of this southward expansion and the main perpetrator of abductions in the Sahel. While the group still commits kidnapping for ransom, receiving large amounts of money from capturing foreigners and wealthy Sahelians, financing is no longer the primary motivation. Currently, the use of kidnappings depends on JNIM’s territorial influence over a given area.

When JNIM first infiltrates a community, kidnappings spike. The group targets anyone associated with or representing the authorities and influential local figures. The attacks aim to intimidate locals, gather data and reduce the number of people who might threaten its establishment in that area – either by forcing them to leave or by winning them over. Once JNIM’s influence is established, kidnappings decrease.

Although incidents may still occur for the above reasons, two additional motivations are to recruit young people and conscript specialised individuals (such as doctors and nurses) when the group has a need. JNIM also kidnaps anyone moving through its territory. These are short-term abductions for vetting purposes to ensure JNIM knows about activities in the areas under its control and who is conducting them.

Kidnappings target locals who are caught between insurgent groups fighting to expand their reach

Two districts in central Mali’s Mopti region illustrate this point. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project from 1 January to 26 July 2023 indicates that in Youwarou, one of JNIM’s main strongholds, only one kidnapping occurred this year. On 5 July, the group abducted four health workers, most likely to treat members or provide healthcare in hospitals in the villages under JNIM’s influence.

In the Mopti district, which remains highly contested due to the presence of security forces and state-affiliated local militias, 11 kidnappings occurred this year up to July. JNIM targeted suspected collaborators, people who didn’t respect the group’s rules, and village chiefs or their families.

The shift in dynamics – from targeting Westerners for ransom to targeting Sahelians driven by expansion goals – is important. Although the former brought crucial financial capabilities to violent extremist groups, it had less impact on communities. Current kidnapping patterns target local populations who become caught between insurgent groups fighting to expand their reach.

The kidnapping industry is at the heart of the Sahel conflict. Its links with instability should be recognised as much more complex than being merely a source of financing.

Flore Berger, Sahel Senior Analyst, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

This article was first published by ENACT.

Image: © Alamy Stock Photo

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ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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