Bottom Line: The kidnapping of seven French nationals in Cameroon, near the border with Nigeria, is only the start of what will be a wave of kidnappings across the region—and the catalyst is the French intervention in Mali.
Analysis: On 19 February, seven French citizens—including four children aged 5,8,10 and 12—were kidnapped outside the Waza National Park in northern Cameroon by Nigerian-based Boko Haram Islamist radicals who are offering up their release in exchange for the release of militants being held in Nigeria and Cameroon. On a video released by the kidnappers, alleged Boko Haram representatives also note that their actions are in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali. The French have been less than decisive, actually falsely stating that the hostages had been freed last week. A video of the hostages released earlier this week proved otherwise. The adult male hostage—the father of the four children—was an executive for French gas company GDF Suez.
While our intelligence contradicts reports that Boko Haram has significant and expanding capabilities outside of Nigeria, the French intervention in Mali is a window of opportunity for a number of Islamic militant groups to take center stage and make a power play. This is what Boko Haram is doing and the French in Mali are essentially leading these otherwise geographically confined groups across borders where they will find brothers in arms who will work to solidify a transnational jihadist network the likes of which has never before existed. Another dynamic that we will see emerge is smaller militant groups attempting to take advantage of the jihadist snowball effect starting from Mali. Interestingly, while the video released claims to be from Boko Haram, Boko Haram’s “leadership” denies involvement. This is a result of the fact that Boko Haram is not a cohesive group and there are numerous factions of small groups who have attempted to jump on the Boko Haram bandwagon.
Recommendations: All Western citizens are at an extremely heightened risk of kidnapping across West Africa. Boko Haram and groups that claim to be related to Boko Haram could extend its reach in terms of kidnapping beyond to Benin as well. The risk is exponentially compounded because there is a definite “market” for hostages and the new trend is for non-militant individuals with no ideological connection to Islamic militant groups to kidnap foreigners and sell them to any number of militant outfits for quick cash. The French family kidnapped on 19 February is only the beginning of what will likely be a rash of kidnappings across the region.