A leader from the Islamist militant group known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, announced on Tuesday that they have kidnapped five members of the Red Cross, confirming recent suspicion of the group’s resurgence in the region as the French military begins its initial withdraw.
"Thanks to God we seized a 4x4 (vehicle) of the enemies of Islam with their accomplices," MUJAO official Yoro Abdoulsalam told AFP.
MUJAO is one of the many al Qaeda-linked groups who have had ongoing presence in this part of Africa but who were partially ousted from Northern Mali by French military efforts in January of last year.
Abdoulsalam has not indicated MUJAO’s motive for the alleged kidnapping of the Red Cross workers.
Northern Mali is no stranger to kidnappings performed by groups with alleged links to al Qaeda. Tuesday’s kidnapping comes several months after the New York Times reported two French journalists kidnapped by an al Qaeda or Tuareg splinter group had their throats slit when the kidnappers realized they wouldn't "get away" with the hostages. A week before that, the French government reportedly paid $34 million for four separate hostages who had been held for more than three years in neighboring Niger.
"That's the idea that's circulating in town now: all you have to do is kidnap a Westerner, and you can get millions," a military official in Kidal, Mali told the New York Times in November.
But the workers with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who MUJAO claim to have kidnapped are not Westerners. All five of the victims are Malian citizens, which begs the question of whether this kidnapping was performed for transactional reasons or ideological.
“We are looking at this from a utilitarian point of view,” Dr. Geoff D. Porter, Ph.D in Middle East and Islamic Studies and founder of NARCO, North Africa Risk Consulting Inc., told Vice News. “It’s possible that there’s an ideological component. ICRC represents the west. It’s part of MUJAO’s objectives to discourage activities of foreign NGOs in Northern Mali, and the kidnapping of Red Cross workers would go a long way to achieve that objective.”
MUJAO is an al-Qaeda-linked group in the Islamic Maghreb and an organization open about its intent to rid North Africa of western influence.
ICRC spokesperson Alexis Heeb told AFP on Tuesday he was unable to confirm the claim, but his organization was communicating with MUJAO and other Malian contacts.
Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked groups occupied the north of Mali after a military coup in 2012. They were then driven from the region by the French military, but residents of Gao, a town in the north of Mali, have recently expressed concern about the resurgence of MUJAO and other rebel groups in the unstable region. France plans to reduce its military presence in the region from 5,000 troops to 1,000 come spring.
“There’s no reason to think that MUJAO wouldn’t reinsert themselves during the French’s initial withdraw, it’s just surprising that it’s starting to happen this soon. If this incident marks the beginning of a trend of the way things were before, that’s pretty fast,” Porter said.
The five Red Cross workers who the Islamist group MUJAO claims to have kidnapped were reportedly traveling on a road between the northern towns of Kidal and Gao.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are well known for using ransom money to fuel terrorism. Experts estimate that the organization made a collective $105 million in the last 3.5 years from ransoms paid by international governments.
This region in northern Mali near Kidal is responsible for a significant number of kidnappings since 2003.