France's military intervention in Mali to disrupt and defeat al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has generated observable positive consequences, both for the intervening parties and for Africa's Sahel and Maghreb regions. However, the operation has also brought about significant unintended consequences.
French and allied African forces have repelled the jihadist incursion into southern Mali, a dual-headed offensive that triggered the military intervention earlier than expected. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb bases in the northern Malian towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal have since been wiped out. The jihadists in northern Mali no longer control urban locations and have transitioned to guerilla-style combat in rural and mountainous northern Mali. In a few instances, they have used insurgent-style suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices.
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French casualties have been light, with two soldiers killed during six weeks of combat operations, and public opinion in France has supported President Francois Hollande and his administration's Malian intervention. Strategy documents recovered from a militant safe house in Timbuktu buttress Paris' argument that intervening in Mali was necessary in order to deny sanctuary to jihadists intent on consolidating control in Mali and ultimately across the Sahel.
These successes are documented, but the unintended consequences of the French intervention have yet to be fully realized. The Jan. 15 attack on the Tigantourine natural gas facility outside of Ain Amenas, Algeria, in which 132 foreign energy workers were held hostage and dozens were killed, was just one reprisal attack.
In addition to its transition to a guerilla force, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has likely renewed its focus on kidnapping foreigners in remote corners of the Sahel. While security has been reinforced at urban centers in northern Mali and at important sites such as France’s Areva-operated uranium mines in Niger, the renewed demand for kidnapping revenue leaves some foreign nationals vulnerable.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has conducted kidnappings in Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Mali. The group uses these operations to fund its warfare capability — revenues from hostage taking have earned the jihadist group an estimated $89 million over the last 10 years. Its ransom negotiations could extract a multimillion-dollar payout for each foreign national held.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may be turning to renewed kidnappings to generate sufficient funds to safeguard their fighting capability and generate leverage against intervening forces. Maintaining supply lines amid a hostile environment heavily watched by a host of enemy forces puts additional pressure on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to increase the area in which it maneuvers. The Feb. 17 kidnapping of at least eight foreign construction workers in Nigeria's Bauchi state was carried out by Nigerian militants in some way tied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as was the Feb. 19 kidnapping of a family of seven French civilians at a national park in Cameroon. The Nigerian Islamist militant group Ansaru, a faction of another Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, whose leadership has operated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the first attack. No one has yet claimed the second kidnapping, which was the first such occurrence in northern Cameroon but took place within Boko Haram and Ansaru's area of operations.
The employers of the eight construction workers — and in the case of the French family, Gaz de France Suez — may be confronted with a ransom demand of tens of millions of dollars. The governments of the region will discourage paying out such a ransom, knowing it could be used to buy bullets that will be aimed at their own troops.
The twin kidnappings in northern Nigeria may reveal the extent to which al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can compel a kidnapping. It does not have to take hostages directly. In fact, the jihadists in Mali prefer to operate indirectly through proxies, particularly through indigenous militias. Ansaru — and to a lesser extent Boko Haram — may be acting in the interest of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. If so, this adds northern Nigeria to the long list of territories within which the jihadists can maneuver.
Nigeria is facing rising domestic political stress, a dynamic that has historically been accompanied by a rise in militancy, kidnappings and bloodshed. Another kidnapping took place off the coast of Bayelsa state in the country's oil-producing Niger Delta region on Feb. 17, and still another reportedly took place in a similar location on Feb. 10.
President Goodluck Jonathan is facing significant opposition to a possible re-election bid. Even though national elections won't be held for another two years, they are consistently shaped by extensive violence and intimidation, and militias play a significant role. The political elite in Jonathan's home region of the Niger Delta supported militant attacks through the umbrella group the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta to help get Jonathan elected in 2007. Pipeline sabotage and expatriate kidnappings in the Niger Delta were part of the campaign in the late 2000s and will likely be replayed in the next election cycle. Kidnappings and illegal bunkering are highly lucrative activities, and many Niger Delta militants — like their peers in northern Nigeria and the Sahel — are part of a criminal underworld that requires no additional political incentive to conduct attacks.
A degree of militant violence in northern Nigeria may be prompted by the fact that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb needs to expand its kidnapping operations or conduct other attacks to counter the military intervention against them. The same motivation could likely be aimed at making northern Nigeria ungovernable to the Jonathan administration. Nigeria's political elites all use militants for leverage, meaning the Niger Delta elite will also need to sponsor militancy again in order to keep pace with activities in northern Nigeria.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the date of the kidnapping that took place off the coast of Bayelsa state.