Map of al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and Niger since 2014. Map created by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.
French special forces freed Dutch captive Sjaak Rijke in an operation in northern Mali. Rijke, along with Swedish and South African nationals, were captured in Timbuktu in 2011 by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda’s official branch in North Africa.
The special operations raid was originally targeting AQIM militants before the French forces found Rijke. According to the BBC, his presence caught the French special operators by surprise; it was only after the fighting was over when they realized the militants were holding the Dutch hostage. The French defense ministry has said that Rijke is in good health and has been transferred to a French military base in Tessalit in northern Mali.
The other two men captured with Rijke, Swede Johan Gustafsson and Stephen Malcom from South Africa, are still missing. The men were kidnapped by AQIM in a Timbuktu hotel in 2011 and appear to have been separated by the al Qaeda branch. Before his rescue, Rijke appeared with French national Serge Lazarevic in a video produced by AQIM. The video, which was released last year, had the two hostages plead to their respective governments to intervene in order to free them. (For more on this video, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb video features French, Dutch hostages.)
AQIM has a history of taking Western hostages. 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 throughout North Africa. The al Qaeda branch’s prolific kidnappings have even led senior al Qaeda leaders to tighten their control over the hostage-taking operations.
In November 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 LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations.]
Attacks in Mali
The special operations raid that freed Rijke comes as several attacks have happened in Mali and neighboring states in recent days and weeks. Just yesterday, one person was killed and three others wounded when rockets were fired into the town of Gao. On Apr. 4, unidentified gunmen kidnapped a Romanian security officer near a manganese mine in northern Burkina Faso. The assailants then fled with the hostage to Mali after wounding another security officer in a firefight. While no group has taken responsibility for either attack, al Qaeda forces have been responsible for numerous other similar operations in the past.
Additionally, the Malian town of Boni in the Mopti region came under attack over the weekend. Reportedly, around a dozen gunmen arrived on motorbikes and killed two civilians and wounded a police officer before fleeing. On March 30, one Red Cross worker was killed when gunmen stopped his truck en route to Niger. The al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) subsequently took responsibility for the attack.
MUJAO was founded by Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi in late 2011 as an offshoot from AQIM in order to wage jihad in western Africa. In August 2013, MUJAO merged with the al Mulathameen Brigade, which was led by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and formed al Murabitoon. Tilemsi and Belmokhtar ceded leadership to an unnamed jihadist commander who is said to have waged jihad in Afghanistan. Al Murabitoon then swore allegiance to al Qaeda. However, a faction of MUJAO still operates independently under the leadership of Sultan Ould Bady. [See Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda group led by Belmokhtar, MUJAO unite to form al-Murabitoon.]
In December, Ahmed el Tilemsi was killed in a French special forces raid. Gilles Jaron, a French Army spokesman, said that a dozen terrorists, including Tilemsi, were “neutralized,” a euphemism for killed, in a midnight raid.“Following an intelligence opportunity,” Gilles said, “French forces led an operation in the Gao region in coordination with the Malian authorities.” (For more on the raid and Tilemsi’s background, see LWJ report, French troops kill MUJAO founder during raid in Mali)
Jihadist groups are still able to operate and still pose a threat to Malian and regional stability despite the French-led counterterrorism mission in the country. The al Qaeda groups in Mali appear to have regrouped and re-equipped in recent months. Jihadists have also been able to mount a terrorist attack in Mali’s capital, Bamako, in the south. Last month, Al Murabitoon killed five in an attack on a nightclub in the capital. (For more on this attack, see LWJ report, Al Murabitoon attacks nightclub in Mali capital.)