Canada broke ranks with key allies when it contributed to a ransom to free hostages in West Africa, according to U.S. officials, who complained that the secret deal with terrorists had “a dramatic effect on regional security.”
In memos from the field cabled to Washington, U.S. envoys expressed fears that the ransom deal encouraged “nefarious elements throughout the Sahel to continue targeting Westerners for abductions.” They also said they thought that the deal might lead to suicide car-bomb attacks against Americans.
It has been 2½ years since Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were released in mysterious circumstances. When reporters pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper about what his government had done to free them, he stated that “the government of Canada does not pay ransom.”
In West Africa, U.S. officials were left with a very different impression.
Ottawa acceded to the terrorists’ demands for payment in exchange for the hostages, according to the U.S. ambassador to Mali, Gillian Milovanovic, who closely followed the 130-day hostage crisis from her post in the capital, Bamako.
The career diplomat complained that “it is difficult to level criticism on countries like Mali and Burkina Faso for facilitating negotiations when the countries that pay ransom, like Austria and Canada, are given a pass.”
Her views, reflected in a February, 2010, cable to the State Department, accord with those of U.S. and U.K. sources who have independently told The Globe their countries were angered by Ottawa’s role in the hostage negotiations.
The deal involved a prisoner swap and multimillion-dollar payment. It was brokered by several Western nations working through African intermediaries. The hostage crisis, its resolution and its fallout were largely foreseen, according to leaked cables documenting how U.S. officials struggled to deal with the kidnappers’ terrorist faction, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In November, 2008, a tribesman from Mali’s Tuareg ethnic group approached U.S. diplomats to warn that kidnappings were imminent. Austria had just paid for the release of two of its citizens. From deep in its desert hideaways, AQIM had put out the word – it was investing its profits in bounties, offering $45,000 to anyone who handed them a new Western hostage.
In mid-December, Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay were abducted while on United Nations business in Niger. More than 20 Canadians were immediately dispatched to West Africa to look for them. “The Austrians proved adept at cultivating Tuareg and Arab leaders … Canada is beginning to take a page from this playbook,” one U.S. cable said.
In January, 2009, the rescue effort was complicated when four European tourists were also abducted. A cottage industry of middlemen formed. “With various ‘Good Samaritans’ coming out of the desert to peddle information in return for a piece of the presumed payoff, the British, German, Swiss and Canadian representatives may be in Bamako for quite some time,” a diplomat wryly observed.
By February, the Americans were urging Mali’s President to do more, stressing that the Canadian hostages were important to the UN and Washington. “The Canadian government had a policy of not paying ransom,” a U.S. diplomat cautioned. President Amadou Touré replied that he was already speaking to Ottawa’s officials and he would “act with the consent of the Canadian government.”
By March, an Ottawa official (unnamed in the cable) relayed that the negotiations were reaching an “end game.” Six weeks later, the two Canadian hostages were released as part of the larger deal.
Three European captives were also let go. AQIM decapitated the fourth, Edwin Dyer of Britain.
Cables show that in the months before Mr. Dyer’s slaying, an African intermediary had offered to put U.K. officials in contact with him. But they “never accepted out of fear that speaking to the hostage could put them into a position of having to negotiate with terrorists.”
In the aftermath, officials at the U.S. embassy in Mauritania feared that the cash infusion would lead to a wave of car bombings and other attacks, and set up a fortified security perimeter. U.S. diplomats also cabled Washington to say that a mayor of a village in northern Mali was observed to be in control of “an enormous influx of cash likely linked to the Canadian and European hostage crisis.” The mayor later told The Globe he had met frequently with Canadian officials.
Later that summer, AQIM assassinated a U.S. missionary. And AQIM fighters used night-vision goggles to launch a predawn attack in which they massacred dozens of relatively ill-equipped Malian soldiers. “Multiple ransom payments have increased AQIM’s financial ability to conduct operations,” a U.S. official said.
Setbacks in the summer of 2009 led Western governments to step up actions against the terrorist group.
During Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Canada’s Parliament this week, officials from both countries announced they would strengthen measures intended to starve AQIM of funds.
A spokesman for Mr. Harper’s office said on Friday that the government does not comment on leaked documents.