A leaked U.S. State Department cable suggests that al-Qaeda in Africa was "strengthened" by a ransom that freed two kidnapped Canadian diplomats two years ago.
The rare mention of the ransom, which is contained in a cable released by WikiLeaks, revives a key unanswered question: Who paid?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied that Canada spent any money to free Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, the two former Foreign Affairs diplomats who were suddenly released after five months of captivity in 2009. They had been kidnapped by a terrorist group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while on a United Nations mission to Niger.
Just one week after the Canadians were released, a Libyan official sat down with the U.S. ambassador and the conversation turned to the growing threat posed by AQIM, according to a cable that surfaced on WikiLeaks this week.
"There had been eight kidnappings in the past six months, including the two Canadian officials who were recently released in return for a ransom payment," Musa Kusa, Libya's former intelligence chief and acting foreign minister, told U.S. ambassador Gene Kretz, according to the cable.
"Such payments were unfortunate and only increased the strength of al-Qaeda," he added.
The document does not divulge any ransom amount or which governments may have paid into it.
Libya - formerly considered a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States - was seeking to enter into Washington's good graces as a counterterrorism ally. At the time, it was widely rumoured that a substantial ransom had just been paid for the Canadians' freedom - even that a son of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi had had a hand in relaying messages for Western governments then negotiating with AQIM.
Beyond this, details are murky. What's known is that the terrorist faction freed the two Canadians and two European hostages, even though a British hostage was beheaded after being captured at the same time.
The Globe and Mail's Geoffrey York later reported that several AQIM prisoners had been released from African prisons as part of the deal and that "several million dollars in cash was given to the kidnappers."
Mr. Harper had told reporters that "the government of Canada does not pay ransom or money." Then he added that "what efforts or initiatives may have been undertaken by other governments are questions you'll have to put to those governments."
AQIM has reaped millions from kidnappings since 2008, according to some estimates. North African political leaders have long complained these ransoms amount to huge windfalls for terrorists, who then use the money for more attacks and more kidnappings.
Over time, AQIM has grown more brazen in capturing, ransoming and killing hostages.
Terrorist attacks in Northwest Africa have now spiked to 200 a year, according to a study released this week by the International Center for Terrorism Studies in Arlington, Va.
Yet official discussion of any ransom payments remains almost taboo. "It is a question of saving lives. … On a practical level it's better not to go into details because it may undermine future missions to save lives," said Professor Yonah Alexander of the International Center.
Canadian government spokespeople did not respond Thursday to questions about the document. The U.S. State Department has ordered its own officials not to speak about any of the 250,000 leaked cables now being divulged through WikiLeaks.
The May, 3, 2009, cable states that the United States urged greater Libyan participation in counterterrorism programs as that "would increase opportunities for Libyan engagement with the United States."
Mr. Fowler, the freed Canadian diplomat, who is now writing a book about his ordeal, has said that he, too, is being kept in the dark about the circumstances of his release.
He gave a speech in Ottawa last month about the threat posed by AQIM.
"They are highly focused, very convinced that it's all about Islam and getting to heaven as quickly as possible in paradise by prosecuting jihad," he said, according to a newspaper account. "They hated everyone. They hated the West, they hated the UN, they hated NGOs, they hated what they saw as the hypocritical governments of the supposed Islamic states of North Africa.
"They won't soon be beaten, I don't think."