France Questions Raid That Led to a Hostage's Death

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Mairie de Marcoussis / Handout / Reuters

Michel Germaneau, the late French hostage, in an undated picture released by the city of Marcoussis on July 26, 2010

In a video message released in May, Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French citizen thought to be held hostage in Mali by the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), pleaded with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to "find a solution" to obtain his liberation, adding that he'd run out of the medicine he needed for a heart condition that had worsened in the desert heat. On July 24 — in the wake of French efforts to free him — Germaneau's agonizing captivity was finally resolved, but not in a way anyone wanted.

On Monday, July 26, Sarkozy confirmed AQIM's announcement the previous evening that it had executed Germaneau on July 24 in retaliation for a joint military operation by France and Mauritania to obtain his release. That effort was thwarted when troops stormed an AQIM camp only to find it did not contain Germaneau. Six militants were killed in the raid. In response, AQIM says, it killed Germaneau — a move Sarkozy condemned as a "barbarous, odious act that just claimed an innocent victim." He also pledged that the murder "will not go unpunished."

Germaneau, a retired engineer, was abducted by AQIM on April 19 in northern Niger while working for a charity organization in the region. On July 11, the group threatened to execute the Frenchman if its demands were not met within 15 days. It was in large part because of that approaching deadline that France participated in the July 22 raid, led by Mauritanian forces, on a suspected AQIM camp in northern Mali. But rather than secure Germaneau's freedom, the mission apparently led AQIM leaders to decide to execute Germaneau ahead of the July 26 deadline.

"As a quick response to the despicable French act, we confirm that we have killed hostage Germaneau in revenge for our six brothers who were killed in the treacherous operation," declared AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel in a recording broadcast by al-Jazeera Sunday evening. "Sarkozy was incapable of freeing his countryman in the failed operation, but he without doubt opened one of the doors to hell for himself, his nation and his people."

France takes AQIM seriously — which is probably why Paris decided to attempt the risky rescue operation (which French officials confirmed on July 23 without giving details). Formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the group originally waged jihad to bring down the Algerian government. In 2006, AQIM decided to internationalize its efforts by joining al-Qaeda's global network of organizations — and vowing to strike out at foreign enemies, notably France. Since then, AQIM attacks in Algeria have targeted international interests; French security forces have prevented the group from exporting several terrorist plots to France. Last October, for example, French antiterrorism units arrested a 32-year-old Franco-Algerian physicist, alleging that he'd been in contact with AQIM and was working toward a large terrorist attack in France under its guidance.

As part of its changed strategy, AQIM also began operating smuggling, terrorist and paramilitary activities in the vast expanse of the Sahel region cutting across Mauritania, southern Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and in northern Mali and Niger. Increasingly the group has been targeting foreign tourists and aid workers for kidnapping. That activity is undertaken with alternating aims of raising money through ransom payments, winning the freedom of jailed jihadists and spreading AQIM's message of terror to Europe with the execution of hostages like Germaneau and Briton Edwin Dyer, who was abducted and murdered in 2009 after U.K. authorities refused an AQIM demand that Britain release an imprisoned radical cleric.

At least six Westerners are known to have been killed by AQIM in the Sahel since 2007, and the group continues to hold two Spanish nationals who were nabbed around the same time as Germaneau. Some, however, have won release after European governments agreed to AQIM demands — much to the vexation of Algerian authorities, who say that only encourages kidnapping. French captive Pierre Camatte was freed last February by AQIM after several of its members were freed from a prison in Mali.

Perhaps it was for that reason that Camatte himself questioned the wisdom of launching the July 22 operation that failed and apparently sealed Germaneau's fate. "These raids will necessarily have repercussions [for the hostages]," Camatte said on radio station RTL the day after France acknowledged participation in the action but refused to give any more information on it. France's decision — and silence — has left other observers even more critical.

"I'm sad, but I'm also angry, and I want some answers," declared Olivier Thomas, the mayor of Marcoussis, Germaneau's hometown, after hearing of the execution announcement Sunday night. "Who decided France was to participate in [a raid] when a hostage's life was in danger? How was it handled, and how did we get to that point?"

Thomas and the rest of France will likely get answers in the coming days. Still, anything learned from the military will be less likely to help keep innocents out of AQIM's clutches than the advice Sarkozy offered on Monday: for French people to simply avoid the Sahel at all costs.