AQIM/GSPC kidnaps two in Tunisia

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, aka the Groupe Salafist pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC, standing for Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) took two Austrian tourists hostage in Tunisia. The Austrians were kidnapped between February 18th and 25th, but the GSPC only put out an announcement on Monday. The two hostages are now apparently in Mali, near Kidal. This bears some resemblance to the GSPC's last high-profile kidnapping effort in 2003. As with everything in the Sahara, facts are hard to come by.

Here are the facts as I understand them about the current kidnapping situation. The two Austrians, Andrea Kloiber and Wolfgang Ebner, were kidnapped in February in Tunisia, or maybe Algeria. Ms. Kloiber is a nurse and Mr. Ebner is a consultant. Austria is proclaiming that it will not negotiate with the GSPC. A GSPC spokesman says that if their demands are not met by Sunday, the Ms. Kloiber and Mr. Ebner will be executed.

It's my guess that the GSPC held off on announcing their kidnapping until they had been transported from Tunisia to outside Kidal, Mali, where they possibly are being held. This is a journey of over a thousand miles. Assuming the couple were actually kidnapped in Tunisia rather than getting lost and ending up in Algeria, that means that the GSPC was able to transport two foreign hostages across the Tunisian/Algerian border, across the length of Algeria, across the Algerian/Malian border, probably through the smuggling routes near Tin-Za, and to north-western Mali. Even if the couple was abducted in Algeria instead of Tunisia, the GSPC still had to transport them across the entirety of Algeria and across an international border without being detected, demonstrating impressive logistics.

My guess is that they are somewhere in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. This is due to the pictures I've seen and because they've been reported in both Kidal and Tessalit. If true this would mean that presumably they have come to some sort of arrangement with Malian Tuareg groups that control that region. The GSPC's guy in northern Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has cooperated with Tuareg leaders in the past on smuggling, but they had a falling out in 2006 when the Tuareg rebel group ADC (Alliance for Democracy and Change) ambushed a bunch of GSPC fighters at a meeting over smuggling rights in order to get in the good graces of the Algerians who were negotiating peace between the ADC and Mali at the time.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abu al-Abbas, aka Benouar, aka "The One-Eyed", is more of a smuggler and criminal than a hardcore ideological terrorist. His outfit, also known as the GSL (Groupe Salafiste Liberation, or Free Salafist Group) started as a smuggling ring and joined up with the GSPC later, probably out of profit motive. He was reported killed in clashes between the ADC and his GSPC smuggling outfit back in September 2006. He was also reportedly killed last month. Apparently he's still alive, as I've heard recently from some local military people that he was trying to secure amnesty from various governments so he could take his cash and retire.

Clay Varney at Threatswatch writes that this move should be seen as a move targeting Westerners similar to the killing of four French tourists in Mali last December. First, as far as I know, there was no evidence of GSPC/AQIM responsibility for those killings beyond claims by the Mauritanian government. It's just as possible that the perps were common criminals. Second, I think it is more likely that GSPC is simply looking for leverage in attaining specific demands, especially if the GSPC simply came across these Austrians as they were lost in the desert, rather than planning an elaborate operation. GSPC claims to have treated the hostages well so far and is trying to use them for ransom, demanding the release of imprisoned GSPC members and possibly cash as well. If it was an attack designed to specifically target Westerners, Frau Kloiber and Herr Ebner would already be dead.

The GSPC is split between one faction who is ideologically close to Osama bin Ladin's Al Qaeda and focused on a global struggle, and another faction that is more focused on Algeria and opposed the two declarations of allegiance to Al Qaeda, the first in 2003 and the second in January 2007 that accompanied their official name change to AQIM. Abdelmalek el-Droukdel (aka Abu Musab abd al-Wadoud), the current official leader of the group, is the driving force behind the pledge of allegiance to bin Ladin. Hassan Hattab
is representative of the opposition within GSPC. He surrendered to Algerian authorities last October in order to gain protection from Droukdel's men who were trying to kill him. Belmokhtar, also against the name change and allegiance to Al Qaeda, had a falling out with Droukdel in January 2007.

Thus if it's true that the two hostages are being held in Mali, then it's likely that the Austrians were captured by GSPC elements loyal to Hattab or Belmokhtar and transported down to Mali so the kidnappers could benefit monetarily. It seems unlikely that Droukdel would take such trouble and risk to transport hostages over a thousand miles to Belmokhtar's area of operations given the efforts Droukdel has taken to marginalize Belmokhtar. Droukdel, the force behind the GSPC's increased targeting of Westerners, might not even be in the loop.

Bottom line: I don't know anything for certain! But this is what seems likely to me.


Arjun said...

Adrian, as a complete layman who knows abosultely nothing about this area, these conflicts, or these groups... this is an incredibly concise and clear summary of a sitaution and allowed me to learn a great deal in a short amount of time. Nice. If the Austrian government chooses not to negotiate... are these two people soon the be deceased?

Adrian said...

Well the GSPC extended the deadline, so the two people are still alive. I think it's likely that Austria will pay some ransom to secure the release of their hostages, just like Germany did in the same situation in 2003. The 'demands' of the GSPC are that Algeria release ten specific prisoners or else the Austrian hostages will be killed, but I'm not sure how much leverage Austria has with Algeria to secure the release of those prisoners.