New Report Examines al-Qaida’s Kidnapping Strategy in the Sahel
Armed men kidnapped at least 66 women, girls and babies who were out searching for food in northern Burkina Faso, near the Mali border, in early 2023.
The victims were likely forced to scour the bush for food due to shortages linked to terrorist groups that cut off trade routes and supply lines. Rodolphe Sorgho, lieutenant governor of the Sahel region, condemned the attack, one of an increasing number of kidnappings around the Sahel region.
“While they had gone out in search of wild fruits, these wives, mothers and daughters were unfairly taken by armed men,” Sorgo said in a statement. “As soon as their disappearance was reported, [a search] was undertaken in order to find all of these innocent victims safe and sound.”
The victims were freed a week later, but the Burkinabé military did not disclose details of their release.
The attack near the Mali border underscored a trend of kidnappings among al-Qaida-linked insurgents, who use the tactic for a variety of purposes. The al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimi (JNIM) is the primary driver of kidnappings in Burkina Faso and across the Sahel region.
According to a 2023 report by Flore Berger, an analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), “kidnappings have become for the most part one of the group’s tools for the establishment and the control over territories — through intimidation, vetting, punishment and recruitment — with profit by way of ransom a secondary driver.”
JNIM is responsible for 845 of the 1,100 kidnappings perpetrated in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger between 2017 and 2023, according to a new report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Groups affiliated with the Islamic State group, or IS, also commit kidnappings in the region.
The number of victims is likely much higher as exact data is difficult to obtain and because one incident may involve numerous victims, such as the mass kidnapping in Burkina Faso. In that country alone, kidnappings have increased 30-fold since 2017.
“This can be explained in particular by the reorganization and restructuring undertaken by the jihadist groups following Operation Serval [the French military operation in Mali, launched in 2013], but also by the expansion of the jihadist insurrection that followed,” Héni Nsaibia, senior researcher on the Sahel at ACLED, told The Africa Report.
“Resources and funding have been decentralized, as a result of the evolution of the structures linked to the JNIM. More self-sufficient sub-groups have emerged, which has encouraged more kidnappings.”
According to Guillaume Soto-Mayor, an associate researcher on sub-Saharan Africa at the Middle East Institute, JNIM’s kidnapping strategy is “highly codified” and has been honed over 40 years.
Subgroups who commit kidnappings “do so according to the JNIM’s codes of command,” Soto-Mayor told The Africa Report. Soto-Mayor argues that only well-established organizations are capable of holding hostages for several years.
Victims are usually kept in good condition so outfits such as JNIM can collect hefty ransom payments. According to Soto-Mayor, nongovernment employees and government officials are also common kidnapping targets.
In the GI-TOC report, Berger argued that civil society can play a role in eliminating the threat by continuing to report kidnapping cases in Burkina Faso, especially in areas with deteriorated security where the threat of disinformation is increasing.
In Burkina Faso, state security forces are augmented by Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP). The government claimed it had recruited 90,000 VDPs, civilians who underwent two weeks of military training.
Berger wrote that “a more consistent structure for control and supervision of the VDP is required, from thorough vetting in selection processes to deeper training and careful deployment.”