Looking haggard, and some sporting long beards, four freed French workers who endured the harsh conditions and isolation of Africa’s Sahel region for three years arrived home to tearful family reunions and a swirl of questions around whether a ransom was paid to the al-Qaeda-affiliated group that kidnapped them in Niger in 2010.
The four were working at a uranium mining facility in the west African nation run by French nuclear giant Areva and construction group Vinci.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied that a ransom was paid for their release. But the newspaper Le Monde, among other media, reported that officers belonging to France’s security agency handed their captors more than €20-million, nearly $28-million.
The French workers were captured by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of several Islamist militant groups whose seizure of a large part of Mali prompted a French military intervention. In Algeria, an AQIM splinter group that included two Canadian militants attacked a gas plant facility earlier this year and held dozens of Western hostages.
“It’s quite clear the AQIM and the various associated extremist groups … have always released hostages only in exchange for ransom. To me there’s no doubt that a ransom was paid [for the French hostages],” said Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Ransoms have gone up, he said, and the group has used the payments to build a “war chest,” buy weapons and build a military capacity to strike when the moment is right.
“They [ransoms] have been a major source of its survival and the fact that it was able to take over northern Mali last year was in large part because of the reserves it had built up over the years because of various criminal rackets,” Mr. Pham said.
A fifth French hostage, independent businessman Serge Lazarevic, was not released as expected. His disappointed daughter told the French station BFMTV that the French foreign ministry had told her two months ago that Areva, but not France, would pay a ransom for him.
“I got upset,” Diane Lazarevic said. “I said, ‘That’s shameful. A company is going to pay. My father, he’s on his own, he doesn’t have a company behind him. What’s going to happen?’ ”
She added that the ministry called her back three days later because she was threatening to go public and was told a negotiator would work to get all five hostages freed. “Well,” she said, “my father isn’t here tonight.”
AQIM militants were also involved in the kidnapping in Niger of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were released in 2009. The Canadian government denies that a ransom was paid or that it negotiated with terrorists.
Mark Schroeder, vice-president of Africa analysis at Stratfor, a strategic analysis company, estimated the group collected $89-million in ransoms from 2003 to 2012. “If we look at a 10-year period, they [ransoms] have gotten higher,” he said, adding that the current ransom of roughly $6.5-million per hostage is double what AQIM was seeking during earlier kidnappings.
The Associated Press has reported that AQIM documents it obtained in Mali earlier this year showed that AQIM had been paid $1.1-million for the release of the Canadian diplomats – a figure that it said apparently created discord within the group because it was seen as too low a ransom.
It is not just kidnappings that provide a steady revenue stream for AQIM. The group is also involved in demanding kickbacks, Mr. Schroeder said. “We’re talking cocaine trafficking routes, cigarette trafficking routes, gasoline fuel, consumer supplies that get through this part of the Sahel region,” he said.
AQIM certainly suffered a “strategic setback” after being pushed back by the French military in Mali, but the group is by no means defeated and remains a “viable militant group,” Mr. Schroeder said.
“Because of the French military intervention, their control has been severely degraded. They can [still] mess around with trafficking routes. As far as kidnapping foreigners, it’s harder for them now. Plus, people are a lot smarter in terms of personal security,” he said.
Tu Thanh Ha contributed to this report.