Late last week, German national Jorg Lange was freed in the Sahel after spending the last four years being held by the Islamic State’s Sahel Province (more commonly known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS).
Lange was first abducted in Ayourou, Niger, in the country’s western Tillaberi Region near the borders with Mali, in April 2018. Though eventually ending up in the hands of ISGS, he was initially abducted by other gunmen who then sold Lange to the Islamic State militants.
Gunmen selling abducted foreigners to jihadists such as ISGS, or its main rival the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al Qaeda’s West African branch, is a common practice in the Sahel.
News of Lange’s freedom was first broken by his employer, saying that “we are very relieved and grateful that our colleague Jörg Lange, after more than four and a half years, can return to his family.” German authorities have since announced his return to Germany.
According to Der Spiegel, the Moroccan intelligence service acted as the intermediaries between Germany and ISGS. Though the jihadists were demaning a ransom, it is unclear if such money was indeed paid to secure Lange’s freedom.
One other German national is believed held captive in the Sahel, though the exact circumstances of his abduction remains murky. Father Hans-Joachim Lohre, a German priest based in Bamako, Mali, has been missing since last month and is presumed held by JNIM.
If confirmed, this would mark the first time that the al Qaeda branch has been able to successfully conduct such a kidnapping operation inside the Malian capital, further indicating the worrying devolution in Malian security.
Abductions of Westerners for kidnapping-for-ransom operations remain a significant, albeit sporadic, threat in the Sahel.
For instance, at least five Westerners, including three Italian nationals, one Polish citizen, and one American were kidnapped earlier this year. The Polish citizen, as well as the American, who were both abducted inside Burkina Faso, have since been freed. The Italian nationals are still believed to be held by JNIM.
The area in which the Italians were taken 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 JNIM. Argoti was released in late 2021.
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 French citizen Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped by JNIM in the northern Malian city of Gao in early 2021.
Dubois was last seen in a proof-of-life video released on unofficial channels by JNIM in March of this year. The other Westerners remaining in jihadist captivity have not been seen publicly alive in such videos in several years.
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 Sahel has a long history of jihadist 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 scheme remains a viable option for the Sahel’s myriad of armed actors.
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