Paris is starting to feel the heat from its six-week-old incursion into Mali to wipe out rebels with links to al Qaeda. Even as French troops continued to battle the insurgents entrenched in the north of the country last week, extremists claiming to represent Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based Islamist sect, kidnapped a French family in nearby Cameroon. (This latest reprisal against the French presence in Mali comes only one month after militants kidnapped several Westerners in Algeria.) On Monday, a video posted online showed the seven French hostages flanked by masked gunman who threatened to kill the family unless their demands were met, namely the release of prisoners currently held in Nigeria and Cameroon. The French response was categorical: “We do not play this bidding game, because that’s terrorism,” said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during a radio interview on Tuesday.
Although France has an official no-negotiation policy, it has historically pursued back-channels in hostage situations. In early February, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, Vicki Huddleston, alleged that France used intermediaries to pay a $17 million ransom for the release of four French hostages kidnapped in 2010 in Niger — money which ultimately went to rebels now fighting in Mali. (Perversely, those hostages are still being held, reportedly in northern Mali, and militants are now demanding $120.5 million for their release.) Although the government has denied paying this and other alleged ransoms, regional observers can attest that the French policy of “paying for hostages through middlemen” has been employed for years.
Given its past reliance on middleman payments, France’s official reaction to demands from the Nigerian kidnappers is hardly surprising. Le Drian’s comments may also reflect a calculated political position. With Operation Serval dragging on in Mali (initial hopes for an early pullout have been tempered by a rise in suicide bombings and extremist raids), Paris — and specifically President François Hollande — undoubtedly feels the need to adopt a firm stance in the hopes of gaining some needed political clout back home. (Remember, this is a politician once derided as a meek, indecisive leader.)
But Paris’ avowed refusal to negotiate with terrorists also engenders some very significant political risks. Hollande already has one strike against him in terms of tricky hostage situations: last month, less than one year into his first term, an operation to rescue a French hostage in Somalia met with disastrous failure. If, as threatened, the alleged Boko Haram kidnappers execute the French hostages, including the four children being held, Hollande could face a huge public backlash against the war in Mali — an operation largely predicated on keeping French citizens safe. And with the cost of the conflict skyrocketing (its price tag now exceeds $130 million) as France’s economy stagnates, Hollande is in desperate need of a win, either via a truly decisive military victory in Mali (unlikely) or with the image boost that a safe hostage release would surely provide.
Ultimately, even if France does manage to resolve the current hostage crisis without relying on off-the-book ransoms, a far greater problem will remain: African extremists are largely bankrolled by ransom payments ponied up by Western European governments. In the past decade alone, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands have paid over $130 million in ransom, mainly through intermediaries, to terrorists holding European hostages. Until European countries adopt (and apply) a united approach to dealing with terrorists, akin to the United States’ explicit non-negotiation policy, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, and a host of other extremist groups will continue to rely on European hostages to fund their activities. Which makes the need for additional military interventions in troubled nations like Mali all the more likely.