Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped almost nine months ago by an al-Qaida affiliate were freed Monday in Mali after a multi-million-dollar ransom was reportedly paid -- a sign of the terrorist group's growing sophistication in bankrolling operations through kidnappings, experts said Monday.
Aid workers Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta were abducted last November when their convoy of 4-by-4s was attacked by gunmen on a stretch of road in Mauritania. They were whisked away to Mali, whose northern half is now one of the many stretches of remote desert where al-Qaida of Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has stretched its tentacles.
Late Monday afternoon, the pair stepped out of a helicopter that landed on the grounds of the presidential palace in Burkina Faso and were handed a cell phone. Reporters overheard them saying into the phone 'muchas gracias' -- or many thanks.
Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that Spain had paid euro3.8 million in ransom to secure the aid workers' release. The government refused to comment.
Originally based in Algeria, AQIM had limited reach until 2006, when the organization, then called the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, brokered a deal with al-Qaida's leadership in the Middle East, allowing them to become in essence a franchise of the larger terrorist network.
Since then they have abducted Austrian, Swiss, Italian, French and Canadian nationals. Experts say the majority were released after multimillion dollar ransoms were paid, money that is being reinvested to grow the group's footprint.
In February 2008, AQIM abducted two Austrian tourists vacationing in Tunisia. They were released eight months later after the Austrian government paid $5 million, according to reports in the Algerian press. In December of the same year, the group abducted Canadian national Robert Fowler, the U.N. special envoy to Niger, who was released after a reported $8 million was paid, according to an article in the World Defense Review by Africa expert Peter Pham.
"It's clear that ransoms are being paid, since no political demand is usually made in connection with these kidnappings," said Pham, who is the senior vice president at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and who recently traveled to Mauritania and Morocco in order to research the growth of the group.
"It would be illogical to assume that AQIM is carrying out these kidnappings and making no demands for their hostages. The dangerous innovation that we have seen in recent years is that the ransoms have gone beyond acting as startup money. It's now been incorporated into their business model and has become a major component of their strategy," he said.
He pointed to the prisoner exchange that is believed to have taken place last week before the release of Pascual and Vilalta.
Soon after they were kidnapped on Nov. 29, Mauritanian commandos led a raid across the border into Mali, where the terrorist group is believed to have an operating base. There they seized Omar Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Hama. He was sentenced by a Mauritanian court to 12 years in prison for taking part in the kidnapping of the aid workers.
Just one week before they were freed, Hama was quietly extradited to Mali, where a diplomatic source at a Western embassy said he was handed back to AQIM. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak.
Hama, says Pham, is an example of the group's growing reach and its use of its new capital to recruit the most able fighters. Hama, who is from Mali, is neither Algerian nor Mauritanian -- as was the case for the majority of the group's recruits in its early years.
Pham says Hama, who goes by the alias 'Omar Sahraoui' is believed to have been a senior commander of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, a Muslim group trained by the Soviets. Their fighters are far more skilled then the typical AQIM recruit. And unlike AQIM, the Polisario is a nationalistic movement and is not linked to militant Islam.
"It's an example of how the cash flow from these kidnappings is enabling them to hire the best guns," says Pham. "If you're reaching into the Polisario, you're no longer looking for true believers. ... Now they can afford well-trained mercenaries. So the success rate of their operations will also go up," he said.
Rudolph Atallah, who recently retired from his post as Africa Counterterrorism Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, says that it's against international law for Western governments to pay ransoms to terrorists. But there is no question, he says, that AQIM is making money from kidnappings. The money is funneled through intermediaries, he said.
The helicopter sent to Mali to retrieve the aid workers also included high-level officials from the entourage of Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore. An adviser to Compaore is believed to have helped in the hostage negotiation.
When they stepped off the plane, the two aid workers appeared clean, wearing polo shirts and khaki pants. One of them propped himself up on a cane as he walked.
It was most likely Vilalta, who suffered multiple bullet wounds to his leg when he tried to flee his abductors on the day of the kidnapping last November. The two were driven to the Ouagadougou airport where they were expected to board a Spain-bound flight.
"This has been 268 days of suffering for them and their families," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told reporters in Madrid.
Callimachi reported from Dakar. Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.