Kidal, in the desert of northern Mali, is a dusty, tedious town, reminiscent of some long-forgotten Foreign Legion outpost, with its crenellated fort and military camps and too many people walking about with guns. Getting there is difficult and dangerous. There are no commercial flights and on the roads, carjackings are common.
Ghislaine Dupont, a reporter for Radio France Internationale, and her sound engineer, Claude Verlon, managed to get space on a United Nations flight. They planned to report on the situation in Kidal, where French troops and United Nations peacekeepers are trying to keep the peace.
Instead, on Nov. 2, shortly after they arrived and just after they finished interviewing the leader of the main, non-jihadist Tuareg separatist group, they were abducted by four men, forced into a pickup truck, driven into the desert and killed.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the deaths of Ghislaine and Claude, proclaiming that they had been killed in retaliation for the French “crusade” against Muslims, and adding that the action was made in defense of “Azawad,” the name separatist Tuaregs use for Northern Mali.
“Gigi,” as we called her, knew her way around dangerous places. I met her when I first began covering the continent 15 years ago, when she was already considered a seasoned Africa hand. We had both covered the Congo war. We would talk frequently and exchange information when we could. She had just started to cover the fighting in Mali. Claude, whom I also knew for many years and worked with from time to time, was more than a technician. He, too, loved Africa and journalism, interjecting interviews with insightful questions.
Their loss is painful for me and my colleagues, even more so because it is so senseless. Some security sources speculate that the abductors killed them so that they could quickly flee, after the pickup truck broke down only 12 kilometers from Kidal.
These ghastly killings are disturbing on several other levels — some complex, some depressingly simple, some deliberately ambiguous. For one, they show that none of the forces stationed in Kidal could prevent four men from abducting two foreigners in broad daylight. For another, they indicate that anything relating to France, the “small Satan” in Al Qaeda’s eyes, might be a target. As a source in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or M.N.L.A., told me: “Kidal is completely out of control.”
I reached Kidal last February, at the height of the French military’s campaign to check the southern advance of AQIM and its allies: Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, known as Mujao. Over several weeks, French and Malian soldiers took back control of the main cities of the north: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. More importantly, they managed to clean out the rebel stronghold in the Adrar des Ifoghas region, north of Kidal, where the rebels had spent the last decade building up secret camps. It was quite an achievement. Adrar is a perfect natural fortress, with plentiful water and hundreds of caves to conceal small units of fighters.
Success bred complacency in Bamako and Paris. The jihadists had been badly mauled, a new president was elected and billions of dollars of foreign aid were in the pipeline. Mali looked almost reunified; things seemed promising.
But the recent killings show that Kidal’s situation remains as uncertain as it was in February. Though the extremists seemed to be gone and the secular M.N.L.A. was supposed to be in charge, sporadic violence continued. There were suicide car bombings, shootings and other attacks when I went there last winter to interview M.N.L.A. leaders. They warned me then that I was an easy target for hostage-takers and insisted that I move frequently from one house to another. They had good reasons to be careful. On the night of Feb. 23, as I was moving to yet another place, there was a loud explosion. A suicide bomber, his pickup loaded with TNT, killed several M.N.L.A. members.
Since then, a ditch has been dug around the city to prevent rebel pickup trucks from getting quickly in and out of town. Otherwise, the military force of 400 French and United Nations forces, along with Malian troops, tries to keep a low profile and avoid getting sucked into local rivalries between the Ifoghas clan of the Tuareg and other groups that live there.
Perhaps this rivalry has something to do with the deaths of my two friends. Ifoghas leaders were involved in the liberation of four French hostages abducted three years ago. These hostages were freed roughly at the moment when Ghislaine and Claude were landing in Kidal. According to French and local sources, the deal with AQIM to free them called for a ransom of more than €20 million. Some sources have indicated that the deal also provided for the release of several Ansar Dine insurgents jailed in Bamako, and that those rebels were not freed.
It’s possible that the two murders were in retaliation for what could be understood as a breach of contract. It’s also possible that the huge amount of money simply convinced some other group to try its luck.
Two factors are harming efforts to stabilize Mali: the local struggle for power and AQIM’s determination to harass not only French soldiers, but any other outside presence.
As a French security source, who is involved in the liberation of hostages in the region, says of the killing of the two RFI journalists: “We’re going to see more and more body bags arriving.”
Jean-Philippe Rémy is the Africa bureau chief for Le Monde.