DAKAR, Senegal — Al-Qaeda’s branch in North Africa claimed responsibility today for the slaying of two French radio journalists, who were kidnapped and killed over the weekend in the northern Malian town of Kidal, according to a statement posted on a portal frequently used by jihadists.
Sahara Media said on its website that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb murdered the Radio France Internationale journalists on Nov. 2 in retaliation for the “daily crimes” committed by French and Malian forces in northern Mali, where France launched a military operation in January to flush out the al-Qaeda cell.
“The organization considers that this is the least of the price which President Francois Hollande and his people will pay for their new crusade,” says the statement.
The website identifies the al-Qaeda leader who carried out the killings as Abdelkarim al-Targui, one of the few Malian nationals who has risen to prominence inside the al-Qaeda branch, led almost exclusively by Algerian jihadists. Targui is a native of the Kidal region and is believed to be responsible for the previous kidnappings of two French nationals, Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, who were grabbed from the town of Hombori in northern Mali in 2011. Lazarevic remains in captivity. Verdon was executed earlier this year.
The assassination of veteran RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont, a senior correspondent, and Claude Verlon, a production technician, has shocked and angered France, as well as the world. The two were on assignment in Kidal where they had just finished interviewing a Tuareg rebel leader, when they were grabbed by four armed men in a four-wheel-drive vehicle at around 1 p.m. on Saturday. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found 12 kilometers (7 miles) outside the city, a few yards from the kidnappers’ vehicle, whose steering wheel appeared to be broken, according to a senior Malian intelligence official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Investigators remain puzzled by why the attackers chose to kill the two journalists, rather than hold them for ransom. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has raised at least $89 million in ransom payments since 2003, after successfully carrying out at least 18 kidnappings of foreigners, many of them French nationals, according to global intelligence unit Stratfor. Just last week, four Frenchmen kidnapped three years ago were released, allegedly after a 20 million euro ($27 million) ransom was paid, according to the respected French daily Le Monde.
Among the theories that investigators are floating is that the kidnapping was led by junior al-Qaeda members, perhaps without the approval of Targui, and hence without his brigade’s backup. When their car broke down, the kidnappers felt exposed and knew that French forces stationed in Kidal would soon catch up with them. “They panicked and decided to get rid of the hostages,” said the Malian military intelligence official. “That is the theory we are exploring right now.”