of two French nationals late in the evening of January 10 in Niamey, the capital of Niger, by members of what are presumed to be members of alleged al-Qaida offshoot Al-Qaida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQIM) led to the kidnappers being immediately being chased by units of Niger's National Guard as they fled back towards their base in Mali in 4X4 vehicles.
Three members of the guard were injured during the ensuing shootouts and the kidnappers were eventually stopped by an ambush
laid by French special forces who had been put on the ground by helicopters near the border with Mali. Two members of the French unit were injured, an estimated five hostage-takers were killed, another was captured and the two hostages were found nearby having apparently been burned to death, although the exact circumstances of their death have not yet been disclosed.
This is a very serious incident and it demonstrates that France is prepared to use force in Africa in order to try and save hostages. France has extensive business interests in Africa, and several countries have sizable French communities, some of which go back to colonial times.
AQIM has a long record of bomb attacks, hostage-taking and various other terrorist activities which stretches back to well before 2000 and involves nationals from various European and other countries who were kidnapped in northeastern African countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, where AQIM is based. The last two years however have seen a sharp rise in incidents involving French nationals, and the kidnapping in April 2010 of Michel Germaneau, 78, a retired engineer who had been helping build a school for Tuareg nomads in Niger, marked a turning point in the way France handles hostage-taking by AQIM and other al-Qaida affiliate groups.
Germaneau and his kidnappers were eventually located in a desert region of Mauritania, and a joint raid by French and Mauritian troops was launched to liberate him. This raid led to the deaths of six of the terrorists and Germaneau's body was found some time afterwards. He had been beheaded
. The terrorists had been demanding that France pull its troops out of Afghanistan and that al-Qaida members in African prisons be released.
In an ominous statement shortly after the discovery of Germaneau's body, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned in a markedly harsh tone that "This crime committed against Michel Germaneau will not go unpunished."
That hostage-taking was followed by another
in September by AQIM, who kidnapped seven French contract workers in Niger. Ransom demands included that France must repeal the law which bans the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other religious signs in French schools and that €1m be paid for each hostage. Those demands were flatly rejected by Paris and contact between the French and the kidnappers via intermediaries was subsequently broken off. Since then - and it is nobody's secret - French specialist military units on the ground and the Foreign Legion as well as a network of informers and secret service personnel have been actively hunting them.
Then came last week's incident. It goes without saying that the failed Niamey kidnapping and the killing of several terrorists in the French raid will have a very unpredictable effect on efforts to find the seven missing hostages. AQIM and al-Qaida are surely no longer in doubt that France has decided to stop negotiating for hostages as it used to during the Iraq war and before, when ransoms were almost routinely paid. The French have decided to use force to free their nationals.
This policy change is being backed by Europe, where diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton announced on Monday that Europe supports France in its efforts to "eliminate the threat of terrorism." This was taken as support for French Defense minister Alain Juppe's insistence that
"doing nothing would be taken as a signal that France has stopped fighting terrorism. We are determined to fight this fight."
America too is supportive of France's stand
, as it too has long-term economic and geopolitical stakes and interests in Africa. France and America cooperate on Ivory Coast, Somalia, and northern African countries, although, for once, France is accusing America of being too soft on terrorism in Africa and of underestimating the risks inherent in letting terrorists win their fight to throw western interests out of Africa.
But American hesitation - if hesitation it is - is pointedly indicative of the fact that it has learned to its cost in both Iraq and Afghanistan that military intervention in a foreign country may not bring the desired results, or if it does, certainly not without paying a high price. If there were any Americans ten years ago who didn't know what being "bogged down" or "stuck in a quagmire" meant, they most certainly do now.
The French have embarked upon a very risky strategy which could lead to French forces being used more and more to hunt down terrorists and eliminate them to save hostages, thus turning local populations against France itself and making the job more difficult.
On the other hand, it is of course inconceivable that the West pulls out of Africa if only for the sake of African countries themselves, who could in the event that the West pulls out find themselves falling like dominoes to terrorist groups and Islamic regimes.
This very delicate situation is approaching a tipping point, whether the missing seven hostages are freed alive or not, and whatever the circumstances.
Either France and the West capitulate in Africa, thus giving terrorists an easy springboard into Europe, or they prepare themselves for the likely eventually of a long-haul struggle. It's an awful dilemma with very high stakes indeed.