French journalists’ deaths signal new phase in Mali strife

François Hollande’s greatest success tarnished as jihadist organisations regroup

Colleagues of Radio France Internationale journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon pay tribute to their remains at the airport of Bamako during a ceremony yesterday. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP

Colleagues of Radio France Internationale journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon pay tribute to their remains at the airport of Bamako during a ceremony yesterday. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP


The bodies of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, the French radio journalists who were kidnapped and summarily executed outside Kidal, northeastern Mali, on Saturday, will be flown back to Paris today.

The twin murders were committed four days after the liberation of four French hostages who had been held for three years by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (Aqmi), one of four jihadist groups active in northern Mali. French officials are asking if the two events were connected.

Opération Serval in Mali, ordered by French president François Hollande last January, was considered his greatest success. Islamist and Tuareg rebels had taken half the country and were poised to seize the capital Bamako. Thanks to French intervention, the rebels were scattered and a peaceful presidential election was held last summer.

But in September, the Islamist groups staged attacks in Timbuktu, Gao and Tessalit. In Kidal, the “capital” of the Tuareg rebellion that started Mali’s slide into anarchy in 2012, members of the Tuareg MNLA clashed with government troops clashed, violating the peace agreement they’d signed in Burkina Fasso on June 18th.

Inhospitable desert
Now the killing of Dupont and Verlon has highlighted the lawlessness that prevails in Kidal, an assortment of mud buildings housing some 25,000 souls. The desert is so inhospitable that heat and sand short-circuit the French army’s electronics. Power generators have to be turned off before petrol reaches boiling point.

Some 200 French soldiers are based in Kidal, along with 200 Malian army soldiers and 550 Senegalese from the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma). The UN was to have sent 12,500 peacekeepers to Mali. Only 6,000 arrived.

Minusma maintains checkpoints at Kidal’s entry and exit, but the kidnappers took dirt paths out of town in their four-wheel-drive vehicle. The French learned of the journalists’ kidnapping from the Tuareg politician the journalists had just interviewed.

Huge distances also work against the French, who dispatched two helicopters from Tissalit, 250km north of Kidal, the moment the alert was raised. The helicopters arrived after the journalists’ bodies were found. Likewise, the French fighter aircraft that overflew the zone saw nothing.

Foreign minister Laurent Fabius came close to designating the guilty party, saying the journalists had been murdered by “those we are fighting, that is to say the terrorist groups who refuse democracy and refuse (the upcoming legislative) elections”.

Fabius’s statement was widely interpreted as an accusation against Aqmi and three affiliated groups: Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in west Africa (Mujao) and the Mourabitoun, who carried out the attack in the gas field at In Amenas, Algeria, in which at least 39 foreigners were killed last January. The leaders of Aqmi and Mourabitoun are from Algeria, which shares a long border with Mali.

Deeply divided
Mali is deeply divided between black Africans in the south and lighter skinned Tuaregs and Arabs in the north. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita won last summer’s presidential election on the promise of restoring unity to the country. But to Bamako’s disappointment, France has not disarmed the Tuareg MNLA. On the contrary, Paris has used the former rebel group for intelligence gathering. Six members of the MNLA have been assassinated in recent weeks.

The MNLA is nominally in control of Kidal, so its credibility is damaged by the deaths of the journalists. The MNLA’s leaders face opposition within their own ranks, and are challenged by two other Tuareg groups, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and Ansar Dine, the above-mentioned Tuareg Islamist group linked to Aqmi.

Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali is from Kidal. A few hours before the French hostages were freed last week, arrest warrants for several men close to him were cancelled by Bamako. Ghali is believed to have played a role in the release of the hostages, and by some accounts was granted impunity as part of the deal for their liberation. The fighters of Ansar Dine have begun returning to Kidal, where Ghali’s villa is being refurbished.

Inconsistent behaviour
No one has claimed responsibility for the journalists’ murder, which is uncharacteristic of Aqmi and its fellow Islamists. It might seem strange for the jihadists to free four French hostages last Tuesday, only to murder two French citizens on Saturday. But experts say such inconsistent behaviour is consistent with the group’s strategy of keeping enemies off guard.

If Aqmi was responsible for the murders, its presumed motive was a show of force before legislative elections begin on November 24th. The atrocity could have been Aqmi’s way of thumbing its nose at “Opération Hydra” which mobilised 1,500 French, Malian and UN soldiers in an attempt to sweep jihadists out of the region southwest of Kidal between October 20th and November 3rd, the day of the journalists’ murders.

The other prevalent theory is that the killings were a form of revenge by groups or individuals who were cut out of more than €20million in ransom believed to have been paid by the French.

Whoever the murderers, whatever their reasons, François Hollande’s African success story has been tainted. He and Fabius have implied that France will send reinforcements to Kidal. Opération Serval has decreased from 4,500 French troops last winter to 3,000 at present. It’s unlikely that will diminish to 1,000 by year’s end, as originally planned. And the dreaded word quagmire – bourbier in French – has begun appearing in newspaper headlines.