DAKAR, Senegal —
Lt. Col. Oumar Sy, a Malian officer stationed in Kidal and involved in the investigation, said that everything pointed to the NMLA. The town is where the rebel group is headquartered, and the journalists were taken in front of the home of the group’s acting head.
“We are in a town that is in the de facto hands of the NMLA. We learn that these poor people are taken in front of the house of an NMLA leader. No one lifts a finger to help them. What conclusion would you come to?” he said.
France launched a military operation in January to help Mali retake its north, and succeeded in restoring government rule in all the regions formerly held by al-Qaida, with the exception of Kidal. Although the Malian military returned this summer, they remain mostly confined to their military base, largely unable to patrol the streets, where the NMLA rebels can still be seen zooming through the sand-enveloped paths aboard pickup trucks bearing the NMLA flag.
Since 2003, northern Mali also has acted as a rear base for al-Qaida’s North African branch, which has used the country’s vast deserts north of Kidal to train fighters, amass arms and prepare for war. They have bankrolled their operations by kidnapping Westerners, especially French nationals.
According to global intelligence unit Stratfor, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out at least 18 successful kidnappings of foreigners in the past decade, netting at least $89 million in ransom payments.
Just last week, four Frenchmen kidnapped three years ago in neighboring Niger were released by the terrorist group in the deserts of northern Mali, allegedly for ransom of more than 10 million euros ($13.5 million), according to Pascal Lupart, the head of an association representing the friends and families of hostages held by the group.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb embedded itself in northern Mali in part by forging alliances with the Tuareg people, who have agitated for independence for the past half-century. Several of al-Qaida’s local commanders are believed to be Malian-born Tuaregs, with ties to both Kidal and the local separatist movement, the NMLA.