Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat- The attempted kidnapping of Saudi nationals in Niger, which left several of them dead, was intended to sell the victims to al-Qaeda’s branches in Africa, Asharq al Awsat has learned.
Sources in Algeria’s Sahara familiar with the smuggling activities associated with armed groups have stated that Touareg merchants who returned from Niger talked about the ambush of Saudi nationals, which took place the day before yesterday when it reached the borders between that country and Mali.
The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that a gang of Niger’s Arabs lead by an arms smuggler called “M.A.” set up an ambush for the Saudis at dawn the day before yesterday and their aim was to kidnap and sell them to the terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda branch in Africa’s Sahel. They said the plan was for the gang to take the six Saudis alive and hand them over to Belmokhtar, alias Khalid Abi al-Abbas and a veteran of the Afghanistan war who is 38 years old, but the Saudis’ use of their weapons prompted the gang to open fire on them, killing three and wounding two. The Saudis were on a hunting trip for rare birds which live in the region.
The sources estimated the number of the gang at 30 persons who mostly move between the border areas of Mali and Niger and in the latter’s tourist areas to follow foreign tourists, especially Western ones, and then sell them to the armed organizations associated with Al-Qaeda organization in return for a percentage of the possible ransom which the terrorists obtain from the hostages’ governments in exchange for releasing them.
The ambush prepared for the Saudis was similar to a successful kidnapping carried out by a gang at the end of 2008. The victims of that kidnapping were Robert Fowler, the UN secretary general’s envoy to Niger, his assistant Louis Guay, and their Niger driver. The diplomats were handed over to Belmokhtar who released them four months later in return for a ransom, whose value is unknown, paid by the Canadian Government, and the release of three jihadists detained in Mali.
In a related development, the security forces in Niger arrested three persons in connection with the attack targeting the Saudis, according to “Reuters” report which cited military sources. The sources, which asked to remain unidentified, said the three persons were arrested near the borders with Mali and taken to the capital Niamey for questioning. The sources said the suspects were probably foreigners.