Several Westerners kidnapped across the Sahel in recent months

Over the last two months, at least five Westerners, including three Italian nationals, one Polish citizen, and one American, have been kidnapped by armed men across the Sahel. An additional hostage, a Togolese national, was also kidnapped alongside the Italians. 

Abductions, especially among local citizens of central Mali and in Burkina Faso, have been steadily rising over the last few years. Kidnappings of Westerners, however, remain more sporadic. 

These more high-profile abductions are usually the work of jihadists or criminal elements who then later sell the individuals to the jihadists. However, no jihadist organization has so far claimed responsibility for the recent spate of abductions. 

On May 20, three Italian nationals, as well as a Togolese citizen, were kidnapped by armed men not far from the town of Koutiala in Mali’s southern Sikasso Region. The victims were all members of the Jehovah Witness faith, but Malian officials stated they were not acting as missionaries. 

The Italian government has confirmed the abductions, but so far little other information has emerged. As of the time of publishing, no armed group has claimed responsibility. 

The area in which they were taken, however, is not far from where former hostage, Gloria Cecilia Argoti, was abducted by militants from al Qaeda’s Katibat Macina in early 2017. Katibat Macina now forms a significant part of al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) in the region. Argoti was released in late 2021. 

The kidnapping of the Italians and their Togolese companion comes a few weeks after a Polish national was kidnapped in Burkina Faso’s eastern Tapoa Province, which borders southwestern Niger, in late April 2022. No armed group has taken responsibility for that kidnapping, but JNIM maintains a strong presence in Tapoa Province.

That kidnapping came a few weeks after American nun, Suellen Tennyson, was kidnapped in northern Burkina Faso in early April. Tennyson was taken by at least 10 armed men from her convent in the town of Yalgo. 

Since her abduction, little information about her current whereabouts or status has emerged – and no armed group has yet to take responsibility – though the US Embassy in Burkina Faso has confirmed “it is a high priority case.” 

Around the same time as Tennyson’s kidnapping, an Indian national was also abducted in Burkina’s eastern Gnagna Province, but was subsequently released shortly thereafter.

Abductions of Westerners for kidnapping-for-ransom operations remain a significant, albeit sporadic, threat in the Sahel. 

For instance, French journalist Olivier Dubois was kidnapped by JNIM militants from northern Mali’s city of Gao in early 2021. Dubois was seen in a proof-of-life video released on unofficial channels by JNIM in March of this year. 

And in late 2020, an American was kidnapped in southern Niger before being rescued in a US military operation in neighboring Nigeria. US officials at the time stated they believed the American, identified as Philipe Nathan Walton, was taken in a kidnap-for-ransom plot. 

Several other Westerners remain in jihadist captivity in the Sahel. This includes Romanian national Iulian Ghergut, who was kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in northern Burkina Faso in 2015; Australian national Ken Elliot, who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also in northern Burkina Faso in Jan. 2016; American national Jeffery Woodke, who was kidnapped by suspected Islamic State militants from north-central Niger in Oct. 2016; and German national Jorg Lange, who was abducted by suspected Islamic State militants in Niger in April 2018. 

Additional high-profile hostages, including Malian, French, and Italian nationals, were freed as part of a large prisoner swap between the Malian state and JNIM in late 2020. An additional kidnapped Westerner, Canadian national Kirk Woodman, was executed by Islamic State militants in Burkina Faso in early 2019. 

The recent spate of abductions of Westerners over the previous few weeks demonstrates the lasting impact of the region’s long standing history of kidnap-for-ransom operations. For instance, jihadist groups, particularly al Qaeda, have been able to net tens of millions of dollars from this tactic over the last two decades. 

As such, this tactic remains a viable option for the Sahel’s myriad of armed actors.

Article updated with information on recently kidnapped Polish and Indian nationals, which were regrettably omitted in the first draft of this article.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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