This week, Agence France-Presse received a disturbing call from a terrorist group announcing the death of French hostage Gilberto Rodrigues Leal.
A Portuguese-born French national, Leal was kidnapped in November 2012 from a Malian town near the Mauritanian border. At the time, it was not clear which group had physically taken him, although the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility.
Designated by the US State Department as a terrorist group in December 2012, MUJAO, an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was formed in late 2011. The group first emerged when it released a video of three European aid workers whom it had kidnapped from western Algeria in October 2011. MUJAO has used such operations to fund its activities. The group reportedly received a ransom payment of $18 million for the release of the three aid workers in July 2012.
When Islamist groups took control of northern Mali in 2012, MUJAO held Gao and its environs. The group inflicted a notoriously strict interpretation of sharia law on northern Malians, amputating the hand of a thief, attacking journalists, and whipping “illegitimate” couples and people caught drinking alcohol or smoking.
When Leal was first taken, a MUJAO leader stated, “With God’s blessing, the mujahedin are holding a Frenchman, whose country wants to lead armies against the Muslim people.” In the intervening months, France launched Operation Serval in northern Mali, helping the Malian army push the Islamist groups, including AQIM, Ansar Dine, and MUJAO, from the region. Since the operation began in January 2013, stability has slowly started to return to northern Mali.
Announcing the hostage’s death, MUJAO’s spokesman, Yoro Abdoul Salam, stated: “We are announcing the death of Rodrigues, he is dead because France is our enemy.”
When asked for more information, Salam simply replied, “In the name of Allah, he is dead,” and ended the phone call.
Responding to the announcement, French President François Hollande said, “France will do all it can to find out the truth about what happened to Gilberto Rodrigues Leal and will not leave this crime unpunished.”
The circumstances of Leal’s death are unclear, and it is suspected that he died weeks ago “due to the conditions of his captivity,” according to Hollande’s statement.
It was previously suspected that the hostage was dead as no ransom demands or proof of life had been released for some time. Leal was 61 when he was kidnapped. It was also suspicious that the notification of his death was made by a short phone call rather than a video or other such media typically used by terrorist groups for propaganda purposes.
While Hollande has vowed to learn the truth of what happened and punish those responsible, it is likely that kidnappings for ransom will continue in the region. Ousted from control of Mali’s north, Islamist groups there have followed in the footsteps of their terrorist comrades around the world and launched a guerrilla war against their perceived enemies.
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