The killing of French journalists illustrates the volatile situation in northern Mali

Assassinations come in the wake of four French captives' release, and questions around the ransom paid.

Condolences continue to pour in from across Africa and France following the death of two French journalists in the remote desert town of Kidal, northern Mali, last weekend. Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, who worked for Radio France International (RFI), were forced into a car in front of the house of one of the leaders of the Touareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) on Saturday, 2 November, and found shot dead outside the town a few hours later.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta said he was ‘devastated’ by their deaths. ‘I find no logic in it. It is an inhumane act,’ he told reporters. RFI, which is very influential in Francophone Africa, was ‘like family’, he said. He promised that everything would be done to find those responsible. On Wednesday, local media reported that up to 35 people had been arrested in relation to the crime, although no details of their identities filtered through. Later a Mauritanian news agency reported that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had claimed responsibility for the crime.

The killing of the French journalists illustrates the volatile situation that prevails in northern Mali and especially in the Touareg stronghold Kidal, situated 1 500km north of Bamako and surrounded by desert terrain. The assassinations also come in the wake of the liberation of four French hostages, who were held by AQIM in Mali for the past three years. Many questions are still being asked about whether a ransom was paid for these hostages and, if so, whether it was justified.

The situation in Kidal has been tense ever since French military forces allegedly kept the Malian army from recapturing the town from its Islamist occupants earlier this year. This created the suspicion that France was helping the Touareg MNLA movement to resettle in the town, after they had been evicted by the Islamists months earlier.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researchers Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni and Baba Dakono said in an earlier paper on the situation in northern Mali that negotiations in the run-up to the 28 July presidential elections were focused on avoiding a military confrontation between the army and the Touaregs in Kidal. The Malian army entered Kidal just before the elections, but it is still unclear who really commands the town. France has sent 150 more soldiers to Kidal in the last few days to help control the situation.

The assassinations put a damper on the jubilation in France last week following the release of the four French hostages who had been captured by AQIM in 2010. Thierry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Féret were captured while working for the French company Areva in Arlit in northern Niger and released after lengthy negotiations. A fifth hostage, Serge Lazarevic, is still being held captive after being abducted in 2011 in Mali.

French President Francois Hollande has come under severe criticism for allegedly allowing ransom money to be handed over to terror groups, although France denies that ‘public’ money has ever been paid. Some are even linking the freeing of the four Areva hostages to the brutal killing of the two RFI journalists.

The French daily Le Figaro says Hollande has attempted to score political points from the liberation of the hostages, which has been ‘over-publicised’. The newspaper says in an editorial ‘one dares not imagine’ that the two journalists might have been assassinated by Touaregs who were ‘frustrated’ at not having shared in the huge sums of money paid to the other militants in the region. The French newspaper Le Monde says it believes ‘between $20 million and $25 million were paid from French government secret funds to liberate the hostages’.

The freeing of the hostages and the allegations about the ransom paid were publicised widely by RFI. The freed hostages also reported that their captors listened to RFI.

The question of whether it is advisable for governments to pay ransom to free their citizens is a complicated one, says ISS senior researcher and terrorism expert Anneli Botha. ‘There are two sides to this dilemma, the rational and the emotional side. On the one hand, if you pay ransom you are saying to the terrorist groups, “It’s OK what you’re doing”, but on the other hand, if it was a family member of mine, I’d say pay the ransom.’ The African Union (AU) has urged African states not to encourage hostage-takers by paying ransom money, but nothing prevents private companies from doing so, she says.

Various media outlets, including RFI, questioned the veracity of a statement by AQIM this week that it had killed the two journalists to punish France for its intervention in Mali.

Several millions of dollars are estimated to have been paid to Islamic militant groups linked with criminal groups and syndicates operating in the inhospitable desert regions of the Sahel in the last few years. Botha says although some of the money goes to financing the terror operations of groups like AQIM, a lot of the hostage-taking is purely for the financial gains of the organisations’ leaders. ‘Over the years AQIM has lost its political objective,’ she says.

According to some sources, the Areva hostages were transported from northern Niger to the vast no-man’s-land of northern Mali after the French military intervention earlier this year. They were also allegedly at some stage taken to southern Libya, from where some of the terrorist groups continue to operate. The Kidal region spans an area of close to 10 000 square kilometres bordering Algeria, Niger and Mauritania.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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