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Friday, April 24, 2009

Mokhtar Belmokhtar Was Robert Fowler's Kidnapper

Freed Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay left Mali Friday aboard a Canadian government plane bound for Germany this weekend to be reunited with their families.

The two men were suddenly freed this week by their al-Qaeda-linked captors after four months of captivity. Two Europeans separately captured by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were simultaneously let go.

Reports from Algeria suggest that an unnamed European government paid AQIM factions a multimillion-dollar ransom. While this transaction has not been officially confirmed, countries such as Germany and Austria have been reported to have made similar payments in parallel cases.

“The AQIM has been really hard up for money,” Evan Kohlman, a senior investigator with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, told The Globe and Mail.
Robert Fowler, left, and Louis Guay, centre, greet Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, right, in Bamako, Mali, on Thursday.

The security think-tank analyzed and circulated the terrorist group's Feb. 18 statement after the winter capture of the Canadians and Europeans.

  • “We are glad to tell our Muslim nation of the success of the mujahideen [holy warriors] in executing two kinds of operations on Niger soil,” read the statement, circulated widely on jihadist Internet forums at the time.
  • Mr. Kohlman said the AQIM, an outgrowth of the Algerian Islamist insurgency, is more pragmatic and regionally minded than other al-Qaeda groups.
  • Because it relies on ransoms to finance its terrorist operations in West Africa, he said, it often chooses to deal away, rather than kill, hostages.
  • He pointed out that two Austrian hostages were freed last year in circumstances strikingly similar to this week's release.

A picture of multilateral hostage-rescue talks among European, Canadian and West African officials was slowly emerging Friday.

  • Negotiators may have had a back channel to AQIM leaders, one report suggested.
  • Burkina Faso was involved from the beginning of negotiations,” a presidential aide in that country told Agence France-Press.
  • “We sent emissaries to meet those who were holding them. The emissaries went as far as Algeria.”

Those remarks were made as Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay personally thanked Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaore, on Friday.

They stopped over en route to Europe after their release in Mali on Wednesday.
Before the release, the Canadian government had been mounting a massive diplomatic effort and rescue operation in West Africa. Officials in Ottawa said Canada paid no ransom.

Distinct AQIM factions may have held the Europeans and Canadians.

  • AFP suggested that a faction led by a one-eyed gunrunner based in desert redoubts, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, 36, who is sought by Interpol, may have been holding the hostages.
  • The Europeans are said to have been captured by a Abid Hammadou, a 43-year-old core AQIM leader based in northern Mali.

Although two women, a Swiss and a German, were released this week, two men, one Swiss and one British, remain captives.

Mr. Hammadou, also known as Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was publicly blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department last year.

  • The department's website alleges that Mr. Hammadou runs training camps, played a role in killing 15 Mauritanian soldiers, and helped kidnap 32 German tourists six years ago.
  • Reports at the time suggested a €5-million ($8-million) ransom was paid to AQIM's precursor, the Group for Preaching and Combat.

“Most was spent buying supplies for our brothers in Algeria,” one GSPC official was quoted as saying at the time. “We also bought weapons and ammunition.”

Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay were appointed last year to a UN mission to kick-start negotiations between Niger and a group of Islamist nomad rebels.
While travelling in a UN jeep they were kidnapped and eventually traded up to AQIM.

The Rest @ The Globe and Mail

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