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In April, Olivier Dubois, an experienced French journalist, was kidnapped in Gao, a Malian city on the Niger River. Though his disappearance was soon known by the Malian and French authorities, and by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders, nobody went public with the crime, ostensibly to facilitate the victim's quick release. Those efforts appear to have failed, and in early May a jihadi group with alleged ties al-Qaeda released a video. In it, the victims pleads with his family and the French authorities to secure his release. The French authorities are seeking to authenticate the video.
This kidnapping follows a familiar pattern. A professional from a rich European country is a high-value target. (French citizens are particularly prized.) A video plea from the victim builds pressure in his or her home country "to do something." Secretive negotiations then lead almost inevitably to ransom being paid by the European government, a professional organization, or the victim's family—perhaps all three. Sometimes, the negotiations fail, and the victim is killed. This becomes more likely if authorities attempt to rescue the victim.
The perpetrators often are unclear. Many claim to be part of a jihadi group, but others appear to be criminal gangs. At times, a criminal gang carries out the kidnapping and then auctions [PDF] the victim or victims. Who will pay them the most? A government entity or a jihadi group?
The bottom line is that the kidnapping of Europeans or others that are well connected can be hugely profitable. How profitable is the stuff of rumor, because the amounts paid are almost never revealed. (In many European and African countries the payment of ransom is illegal.)
Kidnapping is an important source of funding for terrorist and criminal groups. Compared to other parts of the world, terrorism in the Sahel is inexpensive. Profits from kidnapping could therefore cover most of the costs.
As of May 11, the French journalist has not been released.