Swedish hostage released after 6 years’ captivity by al Qaeda in Mali

Johan Gustafsson (left), as seen in an AQIM video released in June 2015. 

Johan Gustafsson, a Swedish national held hostage by al Qaeda in Mali, was released and returned to Sweden earlier today after nearly six years of captivity, according to the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

In a statement, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said “Johan’s situation has touched many of us, and extensive efforts have been made to secure his release.” It is unclear what “extensive efforts” refers to in the statement. In the past, foreign hostages in Mali have been released in exchanges or ransom payments.

Wallström did thank the “Foreign Ministry, the National Police’s operational department and other Swedish and foreign authorities” for the release of Gustafsson. At least one NGO was working towards the release of both Gustafsson and a South African national kidnapped alongside him.

According to Swedish media, Gustafsson has already arrived back in Sweden after landing at Stockholm Arlanda airport on a Swedish government plane.

Gustafsson was kidnapped in Timbuktu in 2011 alongside three other people. One hostage, a German national, was killed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) gunmen as he tried to resist. Another captive, Dutch national Sjaak Rijke, was freed in a French special forces raid in April 2015. Stephen Malcolm, a South African national, is still thought to be held by al Qaeda although his status remains unclear with Gustafsson now free.

Rijke previously appeared in a propaganda video with another AQIM hostage, Serge Lazarevic. Lazarevic, a French national, was freed in a prisoner swap with AQIM in late 2014. Lazarevic was kidnapped alongside another French national, Philippe Verdon, who was killed in 2013 by AQIM in Mali.

Gustafsson and Malcolm appeared together in a propaganda video released by AQIM’s Sahara branch in June 2015. The two were shown pleading with their respective governments to try and free them. In addition, the two chastise the governments for allowing them to be held for over 1000 days at that point.

The two would later appear in separate proof-of-life videos produced for Gift of the Givers Foundation, a South African NGO working towards the release of the hostages. AQIM produced another video in early 2016, which was the last time the two have been seen in videos released by the group.

Al Qaeda has a long history of taking foreign hostages in Mali and in the surrounding countries. In 2010, Michel Germaneau, a French hostage held by AQIM, died while in captivity. And in 2013, four French hostages were released by AQIM after being held for three years; it is speculated that a ransom of 20 million Euros was paid to free them.

Before that, AQIM was responsible for the kidnapping of Spanish nationals in Mauritania and an Italian and French national in Mali in 2009, as well as many more abductions. These prolific kidnappings throughout the Sahel led senior al Qaeda leaders to tighten their control over the hostage-taking operations.

In Nov. 2010, AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel made a surprising claim in a video that was aired on Al Jazeera. Droukdel said that France would have to negotiate with Osama bin Laden himself to secure the release of several French hostages. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations.]

These operations have continued, as in Jan. 2016, AQIM captured an Australian couple in northern Burkina Faso. The group would later release the woman, but her husband remains in captivity. In Timbuktu, Beatrice Stockly, who was previously kidnapped in 2012, was taken again by AQIM in 2016. In April 2015, Al Murabitoon captured a Romanian national at a mine in northern Burkina Faso.

Both AQIM’s Sahara branch and Murabitoon are now part of the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al Qaeda’s unified entity in West Africa. This means JNIM likely cares for and holds these prisoners captive on a day-to-day basis.

Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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