Five French citizens were kidnapped in Niger this morning. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist franchise endorsed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is suspected. If the group turns out to be responsible, that would mark the third time this year it has taken European citizens hostage. The Spanish government reportedly paid AQIM millions of dollars to free two of its citizens earlier this year, and France has already declared war on it following the execution of a 78-year-old French aid worker in July.
So how dangerous is this growing group?
According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) AQIM originated in the 1990s "as an armed Islamist resistance movement to the secular Algerian government." It was initially an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which terrorized Algeria with a campaign of massacres, bombings, and kidnappings more than a decade ago. It called itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) until Sept. 11, 2006, when Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command, officially endorsed it in a video message, making it part of Osama Bin Laden's global jihad.
Its membership, says the CFR, is probably in the hundreds. It uses the porous borders in the region to move between countries, and has even sent fighters to Iraq. Experts disagree on the group's capacity to make attacks in Europe and America. But cells have been uncovered in France, Spain, Britain, Germany, Portugal, and Holland.
AQIM had taken hostages before, but the group came to global attention this July when it took Michel Germaneau, the elderly French aid worker, in Niger. It held Germaneau in Mali, away from security operations against it. The French mounted a raid to save him, in which they killed six AQIM militants. But they did not find the captive. In a video message posted on the Internet a few days later one of AQIM's leaders, Abdelmalek Droukdel, said he had "killed the hostage Germaneau in revenge for our six brothers who were killed in the treacherous operation." He added, according to the BBC, that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had "failed to free his compatriot" and "opened the doors of hell for himself and his people."
Last month, two Spaniards were freed after 268 days in captivity with the group. A $5 million ransom had been demanded—the Spanish government refused to comment on reports that it had paid up. Today, seven workers for the French nuclear company, Areva, which mines uranium in Niger, and another French construction company were reported taken near the town of Arlit.
France, which has been backing and working with Mauritanian forces in the region, will now be forced, it seems, to escalate the "war" that Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared against AQIM after Germaneau's death. AQIM is certainly a more dangerous opponent now, says the CFR, as "widening ambitions within the group's leadership" mean that it is "pursuing a more global, sophisticated, and better-financed direction."