DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Al-Qaida's branch in North Africa claimed credit Wednesday for slaying two French radio journalists who were abducted in northern Mali over the weekend, according to a statement published online. It was an admission of responsibility for a kidnapping that experts said didn't fit the terrorist network's usual standards of operation.
A Mali intelligence official involved in the case said investigators believe the kidnapping was the work of a lower-level jihadist trying to return to the good graces of the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb after being accused of stealing money. The militant is believed to have been reporting to Abdelkarim al-Targui, a prominent Malian in the al-Qaida branch, the official said.
Radio France Internationale's Ghislaine Dupont, a senior correspondent, and Claude Verlon, a production technician, were kidnapped Saturday. Hours later, their bodies were found next to the abductors' suspected vehicle, which had broken down, outside the town of Kidal, where they had just finishing interviewing an ethnic Tuareg rebel leader before being taken.
The al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claim of responsibility was reported on the website of Sahara Media, a portal previously used by the jihadists. It said the journalists were killed 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 Islamic extremists.
"The organization considers that this is the least of the price which (French) President Francois Hollande and his people will pay for their new crusade," the statement attributed to the terror cell says.
The website identifies the militant brigade responsible for the killings as that of Targui. Targui is a native of the Kidal region and one of the few Malian nationals who has risen to prominence in the al-Qaida branch, which is led almost exclusively by Algerian extremists. He is believed responsible for the previous kidnappings of two French nationals, Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, who were taken from the town of Hombori in northern Mali in 2011. Lazarevic remains in captivity. Verdon was executed earlier this year.
Targui also is believed to be responsible for the execution of Michel Germaneau, an elderly Frenchman who died in al-Qaida's hands in northern Mali in 2010, according to Jean-Paul Rouiller, the director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism and an expert on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Dupont and Verlon, both seasoned journalists, 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 Kidal, a few yards from the kidnappers' vehicle, whose steering wheel appeared to be broken, according to the senior Malian intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Investigators have been puzzled by why the attackers chose to kill the two journalists, rather than hold them for ransom. Al-Qaida 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.
Late Wednesday, the Malian intelligence official said investigators suspect the man who spearheaded the abduction on the ground was known as Baye Ag Bakabo, an ethnic Tuareg who is a former member of Targui's brigade.
The official said investigators had spoken to members of Bakabo's clan who told them that he had fallen out of favor with his fellow militants after being accused of stealing money. When he learned the journalists were in Kidal, where he had taken refuge, he offered to abduct them to pay back his debt and clear his name, the official said, citing the clan members.
Investigators suspect that once the abductor and his team's vehicle broke down, he called Targui, who instructed him to kill the journalists on the spot. Rouiller also confirmed that Bakabo was the suspected lead kidnapper, but he could not confirm the other details. He noted, however, that the kidnapping lacked traits of abductions carried out by more seasoned al-Qaida operatives.
For instance, it used one vehicle instead of two, Rouiller said, and the claim of responsibility took longer than normal to come about. In addition, the claim wasn't posted on the group's official Twitter account.