Intelligence Agent Presumed Dead in Failed French Raid of Somali Islamists

Just hours after France's military intervene in Mali to battle Islamist militias, a French raid fails to rescue a captive spy held by Somali extremists

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Thibault Camus / AP

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, right, at a press conference on Jan. 12, 2013

A French intelligence agent held hostage for over three years by Somali Islamists is presumed dead following a failed rescue operation by French commandos early Jan. 12, according to the French Defense Ministry. One French soldier participating in the secret operation in southern Somalia was also killed, as were 17 members of the militia group al-Shabaab, officials in Paris revealed. But in response to initial French announcements that the agent — known as Denis Allex — was killed in fighting during the raid, al-Shabaab released a statement insisting that the intelligence officer was still alive, along with an injured French commando French authorities acknowledge as missing.

The early morning operation in the Lower Shebelle region of Somalia came just hours after French President François Hollande announced Friday that French armed forces had backed Malian troops with air strikes in a counteroffensive against Islamist insurgents advancing southward from northern Mali. One French pilot providing air cover to Malian army soldiers died from wounds suffered during fighting. While French officials hailed that continuing intervention as successful in pushing the Islamist militants back toward the north of Mali, both that offensive and the failed mission to rescue Allex raise questions about the future of eight French hostages and other Westerners held by extremists in both Mali and Somalia.

(MORE: The Crisis in Mali: Will French Air Strikes Stop the Islamist Advance?)

The raid in Somalia on early Saturday, involving five French helicopters, sought to free Allex, three and a half years after he was captured with another French agent in a Mogadishu hotel in July 2009. The pair had been fulfilling what Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called “official functions” of France’s secret service as security consultants to the Somali government. The second intelligence officer escaped sleeping al-Shabaab guards six weeks after the pair’s capture, but news about Allex since then has largely been limited to rare video of him reading texts provided by his captors.

Le Drian said Saturday that “for three years, all means to secure [Allex’s] release from al-Shabaab were made,” but failure of those efforts and the “perfectly inhumane treatment” to which Allex was subjected had forced French officials to attempt the commando rescue.

“We knew this effort would be perilous and place the hostage’s life in danger,” Le Drian said Saturday, before qualifying the Ministry of Defense’s initial announcement that Allex had been killed as French forces closed in. “Everything indicates that Denis Allex was killed by his captors during the operation. The [commandos] advanced to the perimeter of the camp before meeting resistance of great violence … It’s a measure of our determination in this operation that 17 al-Shabaab militants were killed.”

That determination won’t quell a renewed burst of alarm from families of hostages in Africa. In recent weeks they’d mounted high-profile campaigns to remind the public of their loved ones’ plight — and urge the French government to do whatever necessary to take them home. It is doubtless that France’s intervention in Mali on Friday has increased the earlier fears those families had about Islamist kidnappers’ retaliation to eventual French involvement in the conflict. The results of the failed operation in Somalia presumably increased those concerns even more.

(MORE: Mali’s Crisis: Is the Plan for Western Intervention ‘Crap’?)

Still, officials with France’s foreign-intelligence agency, DGSE, recently told TIME that France is in a particularly tight spot concerning French hostages in Africa — particularly Allex. On the one hand, one intelligence officer explained, there’s no question of France “paying ransoms to captors the way other European nations have to secure the release of nationals.” That interdiction is somewhat new, some foreign critics starchily note, since France is known to have made payments to foreign hostage takers in the past.

“Not in recent years, and not to al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Africa,” the French intelligence official assured. “The millions you pay them today will be the millions in arms, trained-terrorist operatives and deadly attacks they send back your way tomorrow.”

On the other hand, the official continued, the brutal conditions in which captives are being held — and the dangerously declining health of some hostages — mean there may be little alternative to mounting commando rescue missions to get them home alive without paying ransoms. That dilemma was particularly agonizing regarding Allex, who as an identified intelligence operative was viewed by al-Shabaab as an extremely high-value prisoner, whose return France would have to pay lavishly for.

“We know he’s alive, we know he’s being held in extremely harsh conditions that are undermining his health, and we know he must be brought home in the near future,” the French intelligence officer said a few weeks before Saturday’s mission. “For obvious reasons, nothing more can be said about the topic.”

Whether that cryptic comment was a general observation or foreshadowing of the Bulo Marer operation, it may never be known. Nor, for now, is the question of whether Allex is dead as first indicated, or still alive as al-Shabaab claims. However, Le Drian did confirm Saturday that the Malian and Somali operations were entirely independent — apart from their common objective of battling Africa’s surging Islamists.

Be that as it may, both offensives also offered grim reminders of the difficulty and risks French military will face in their actions against Africa’s well-trained and well-armed Islamist militias. Yet as Le Drian told TIME in December, “When you appreciate the urgency of the threat radical Islamists in Africa already pose to that continent, to Europe and to the West, you realize decisive action isn’t a luxury you can do without.” While doubtless it is true, families of French hostages may offer other sentiments on the topic in coming days.

(MORE: Mali’s Looming War: Will Military Intervention Drive Out the Islamists?)