When northern Mali fell to terrorists and foreign militants last April, a debate began over the causes of the country’s chaotic collapse. Many argued that it was a direct byproduct of NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, which sent thousands of well-armed men across the Sahara to Mali. Others pointed to Mali’s internal corruption and ethnic divisions. But little was said about the most important factor: Europeans have knowingly bankrolled Islamist radicals with ransom payments since at least 2003.
Sixteen years before the 9/11 attacks, the United States sold Iran weapons indirectly in the hopes of freeing American hostages held by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. The Iran-contra debacle taught America, among other things, that paying ransom money only emboldens terrorist groups and their backers. Yet when confronted with the same challenge, European leaders have failed to heed that lesson, and have filled the coffers of terrorist groups for at least a decade.
The so-called global war on terror has been hobbled by these payoffs. The same nations that until very recently had troops in Afghanistan fighting terrorism have been turning over cash to terrorists in Africa.
Over the past decade, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands have paid more than $130 million to terrorist groups, mostly through mediators, to free European hostages.
European leaders were understandably desperate to save the lives of their citizens. But their efforts have backfired because the paying of ransoms has merely turned their citizens into a lucrative commodity for cash-hungry jihadis. Groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa have grown accustomed to ransom payments and reacted by seeking to capture as many Europeans — from aid workers to volunteers to tourists — as they could. In contrast, terrorists know that America won’t negotiate with hostage-takers and is much more likely to use force to free its citizens.
This problem was festering long before NATO’s intervention in Libya. In 2009, Salima Tlemcani, a journalist at the Algerian newspaper El Watan and an expert on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, reported that cash payments were being used by terrorists to purchase weapons and telecommunications equipment. In a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Wolfram Lacher pointed to ransom money as “a main driver of A.Q.I.M.’s growth.”
A former American ambassador to Mali, Vicki J. Huddleston, told the British newspaper The Telegraph, “Everyone is pretty much aware that money has passed hands indirectly through different accounts and it ends in the treasury, let us say, of the A.Q.I.M.” Ransom money, she said, “allowed A.Q.I.M. to grow strong, buy weapons and recruit.”
For the growing terrorist networks of North Africa, ransoms have become a more lucrative jackpot than traditional mainstays like drug and cigarette smuggling. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the recent attack on a gas facility in Algeria that killed 39 foreign hostages, is a veteran terrorist whose career began in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He was also an architect of the strategy of turning kidnappings into a lucrative business. In 2003, his group kidnapped 32 European tourists and traded them for more than $6.5 million, using the money to buy weapons, bribe officials across the region and build a desert sanctuary.
Mr. Belmokhtar’s lucrative kidnapping business helped turn northern Mali into a destination for aspiring jihadis. Starting in 2004, radicalized youths flocked there from my native country of Mauritania, as well as from Algeria, Niger, Morocco, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
The cash infusion from ransoms allowed Mr. Belmokhtar and his acolytes to set up terrorist training camps and enabled them to buy locals’ support. By marrying into local families, and providing services to the desperately poor inhabitants of the Sahel region, they established themselves as a plausible alternative to Mali’s weak government.
By 2011, terrorists had effectively set up their own ministate in northern Mali. While aware of the ransom problem, the European Union was unable to formulate a united strategy to deal with it. As a result of dysfunctional multilateral institutions, each country continued to fend for itself and its own citizens.
This shortsighted approach destabilized the Sahel and angered the region’s most powerful nation, Algeria. For years, Algerian officials had complained about the impact of ransom payments on their own security. They went so far as to propose, in the United Nations General Assembly, a ban on paying ransoms to terrorists. The resolution became the basis of a Security Council resolution in 2009. But in practice, Algeria’s pleas went largely unheeded.
France’s recent military operation in Mali would not have been necessary if there had been a coherent European policy that involved targeted operations against terrorist networks. Even today, with French and African troops on the ground in Mali, there has been shockingly little help from other European governments. Most of Europe has avoided responsibility for preventing the emergence of a new terrorist hot spot virtually on its doorstep.
By contrast, the American government seems to grasp the seriousness of the problem and has gone to great lengths to stop it. The Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence went to Europe last October, seeking to prevent any future ransom payments to A.Q.I.M. and a related group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the ransom problem is not, ultimately, America’s responsibility; Europe’s leaders must slay the monster they helped create.
That won’t be easy. The belief that Africa’s ill-prepared armies and France can make the problem of Islamist radicalism in North Africa disappear is a manifestation of European leaders’ delusional attitudes toward the region.
Europe owes the people of the Sahel — and European citizens — a commitment to refuse ransom money to terrorists anywhere. The only thing that Mr. Belmokhtar and his ilk should expect from the international community is overwhelming force of the sort Algeria demonstrated during the hostage crisis last month. Only by showing them that hostage-taking by terrorists is futile can security in the Sahel be re-established. Otherwise, another Mali is waiting to happen — somewhere nearby.
Nasser Weddady is the civil rights outreach director at the American Islamic Congress and a co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice From North Africa to Iran.