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Spain Paid Ransom to Free Hostages Held by Al Qaeda North Africa

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image Spanish men released by AQIM

Spain has paid Al Qaeda North Africa (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) some 7 million Euros to release two Spanish men abducted by the organization active in the Sahel region. Officially working for a Barcelona-based “humanitarian” agency, the two Spanish men, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta have been detained since November 2009.

The deal also called for the release by the Malian authorities of a high-ranking AQIM leader, “Omar the Sahraoui,” who is the alleged mastermind of the kidnapping. Omar the Sahraoui is a 52-year old Malian national who has been active in all sorts of contraband trafficking and now serving AQIM with his strong knowledge of the region.

 

The release of Omar has been greeted by AQIM as the right decision, hinting that the organization’s demands have been potentially met in their entireties.  In mid-August 2010, Omar the Sahraoui was extradited from Mauritania, where he was captured, to Mali shortly after being sentenced to a 12 year hard labor for the kidnapping of three Spanish NGO workers who were traveling between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou in Mauritania. The Nouakchott criminal court that sentenced him said that he acted as AQIM’s mercenary. At the end though, politics got involved and Omar was released to allow the Spanish men to be freed as well.

 

According to a confidential source, not only Omar was released and money was paid to AQIM, but three other AQIM militants were reportedly freed from their detention in neighboring nations as part of the total agreement. This state of affairs further weakens Mali and Mauritania, as no one will take them seriously as able sovereign nations, but that extends to Burkina Faso, which dispatched a mediator named Mustafa Chafi, an adviser to Burkina’s president to join the negotiating team. The news was also reported by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. If this is true, then that would confirm AQIM extension into new territories in Africa, further seeking to make inroads in new operational theaters.

Spanish newspaper El Mundo reports that Madrid has paid some 3.8 million Euros already in January 2010, through a process involving several intermediaries. Apparently, those middlemen kept a substantial amount as only 1.5 million Euros have actually reached AQIM. Another 3 million Euros were sent to AQIM, which ultimately pocketed 2.3 million in April and May 2010. Malian officials say in all, some 8 million Euros were spent by Madrid, and then confirmed by El Mundo.

For the Spanish government, there has been no confirmation of any ransom paid to the kidnappers. In a brief statement, Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero limited his remarks to thanking the Spanish intelligence services and the governments of the countries involved in the region. Journalists were not allowed to ask questions and probe the government in any way. But the deal is not only embarrassing for Spain but it is also likely to create some short-term tension between it and some front-line nations in the fight against AQIM. Algeria in particular has been vocal in criticizing the European nations that resort to paying ransoms to free their nationals. Such practice fuels terror activity in the region. Instead of financially starving AQIM, these ransoms provide much needed resources to maintain the state of chaos. While welcoming the release of the two Spanish nationals, France refused to follow the same strategy as Spain. As such, one of its citizens, Germaneau was recently executed by AQIM. 

 While countries like Spain continue to feed into the coffers of AQIM, although understandably so, front-line nations will have to up their diplomatic offensive to try to convince nations in international bodies like the UN and the African Union to ban ransom payments to organizations that resort to kidnapping and extortion. Only then the incentives will be removed, as long as European nationals refrain from roaming in unsecured desert lands.

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