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Hostage video: Europeans kidnapped in Nigeria blame Al Qaeda

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In May, two engineers, one British and one Italian, were kidnapped in Kebbi, a city in Northwestern Nigeria near the borders with Benin and Niger (map). Commentators speculated about the kidnappers – was it Boko Haram, the Muslim militant sect that operates primarily in the country’s Northeast? Was it Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has kidnapped Westerners in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and North Africa, but never before in Nigeria? Or was it a local criminal group? The latter was my own suspicion at the time, but for a time there was practically no information about the incident.

That has changed. A newly released video links the kidnapping to Al Qaeda:

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The roughly one-minute-long video sent to AFP in Abidjan is the first proof of life of the engineers since they were kidnapped from their apartment in Nigeria’s northwestern Kebbi state on the border with Niger.

It was not clear when the film was made and this was impossible to verify independently. The video shows the hostages blindfolded and on their knees. Three men holding weapons stand behind them, their faces hidden by turbans.

The hostages give their names, which AFP has chosen not to make public, and each deliver a statement urging their governments to meet the demands of the kidnappers, whom they say are from Al Qaeda.

However, no details of the abductors or their demands are given.

AFP’s reporters appear confident that the men in the video are indeed the hostages, but AFP (and the BBC) note that the British and Italian governments are working to verify the identity of the kidnappers. In other words, people involved with the case are not completely convinced that the kidnappers are indeed Al Qaeda. The kidnappers have apparently not contacted authorities or made specific demands.

Several possibilities occur to me:

  1. Al Qaeda (presumably as AQIM) indeed kidnapped the men. This would be a big deal – the first known incursion of AQIM into Nigerian territory would attract major attention and would compound the Nigerian state’s security headaches. With the Boko Haram uprising in the Northeast, increasing insecurity in the Northwest border areas could scare investors as well as the local population. Pressure on the Federal Government to beef up security would increase accordingly.
  2. A local group kidnapped the men and then sold or transferred them to AQIM. This would still point to AQIM involvement in Northern Nigeria, but would not signal a direct AQIM presence in Nigerian territory as such. The kidnappers could be opportunists.
  3. The kidnappers are posing as AQIM, perhaps in order to increase the eventual ransom payment. If the claims of AQIM involvement turned out to be false, Nigeria would breathe a sigh of relief. On the other hand, it’s hard to put the genie – even just of rumors – back in the bottle. Going forward, commentators are going to be speculating much more an AQIM presence in Nigeria.

Have I missed something? What do you think the implications are?

As we wait for more information on this, I hope above all that the two men are safe and that they will be released soon. I will update if there is anything new.

[Update]: In the comments, Andrew Lebovich makes a great point about how the video was released:

I think what’s telling about the claim is that it did not come from al-Andalus. Given the way AQIM produces videos (and the way they have done so in the past) with hostages, it seems unlikely that they would stake a claim as “al-Qaeda” without any of the official trappings. In the absence of further information or confirmation, of course, we can’t judge. But my hunch is that this is your third option, people posing in order to up an eventual ransom demand.

Al-Andalus is, for those who don’t know, the media house of AQIM. Reinforcing Andrew’s point – and, on another note, perhaps also indicating that the hostages are being held outside of Nigeria – is the fact that the video was sent to the AFP in Cote d’Ivoire rather than to, say, a jihadi website or to BBC Hausa or to another Nigerian outlet. But as Andrew also says, we will need more information before we can be sure of anything.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.