French Family’s Cameroon Kidnapping Stokes Fears of a Pan-African Islamist War

The Feb. 19 kidnapping of a French family in Cameroon by suspected Islamist radicals raises fears of growing cross-boarder operations by African jihadi groups and the use of abduction as a tactic to counter France's Mali intervention

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AFP / Getty Images

Policemen and soldiers in Cameroon gather around the vehicle in which seven members of a French family were riding before being kidnapped near the Nigerian border on Feb. 19, 2013

Updated: Feb. 21, 2013, at 6 a.m. EST

France began holding its breath Feb. 21 amid unconfirmed news that a French family of seven kidnapped two days earlier in northern Cameroon by suspected Islamist extremists had been recovered unharmed. Confusion surrounding the accounts heightened when a French Cabinet minister on Thursday confirmed, then backed away from swirling reports that the vacationing family — including four children — had been found in what French media described as an abandoned cabin in northern Nigeria, about 60 miles (95 km) from the Cameroon border region where the abduction occurred. Around the same time, a member of Cameroon’s government denied the reports before the French Foreign Affairs Ministry also distanced itself from what it termed unsubstantiated “rumor.”

Still, hopes linger in France that officials may yet be able confirm the end to what might turn out to be a bungled or aborted snatch — a yearning born of considerable concern. On Feb. 20, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TV station France 2 the crime was believed to be the work of the notoriously violent Nigerian radical group Boko Haram. Le Drian speculated the kidnapping of the family marked Boko Haram’s long record of  “terror giving way to horror” as the group “begins kidnapping children.” But even if the happy news of the hostage recovery is confirmed — and allegations of Boko Haram’s involvement reviewed — the kidnapping raises fears of renewed aggression against French and other Western targets as the ongoing push against Islamist fighters in Africa continues. During his television appearance Wednesday, Le Drian dismissed suggestions that the family’s seizure was directly linked to France’s military intervention against Islamist fighters in Mali — where a new major offensive on Feb. 19 led to the deaths 20 militants as well as that of a second French soldier in the monthlong campaign. But despite Le Drian’s assurances that the Mali operation wasn’t directly responsible for the abduction, French security officials say the kidnapping is just the kind of aggression they feared from revenge-bent radicals in Africa and beyond.

(MORE: France’s Mali Mission: Has al-Qaeda Already Been Defeated?)

“The operation in Mali has seriously undermined the means of Islamists in the Sahel to wage violence and terrorism, but it has stoked motivation of extremists elsewhere to avenge that jihad and their ‘brother’ mujahedin,” says a senior French counterterrorism official whose position does not allow him to be quoted by name. “To the Islamist mind, jihads aren’t limited to countries or individual theaters of fighting but are all part of the same holy tissue … We expect violent reaction to the intervention in Mali and expect [them] to first target soft targets like French tourists and installations abroad.”

That grim anticipation seems justified. Islamist groups in North Africa have long relied on the abduction of Western tourists and expat workers to both generate lucrative ransoms and leave their mark on regional politics. Indeed, Tuesday’s kidnapping in Cameroon just 6 miles (10 km) from the Nigerian border brought the total of French citizens held by radicals in Africa to 15. Several other European kidnapping victims are being similarly ransomed in the region. Yet that long history of abduction by African Islamist militias led Le Drian to downplay France’s Mali intervention as the motive for Tuesday’s snatch.

“No link to the Mali intervention has been established,” Le Drian said — before noting the kidnapping appeared to be a sign that African jihadis are more intent than ever to use abduction as an arm of terrorism. “These are all groups that embrace the same fundamentalism and use the same methods — whether in Mali, Somalia or Nigeria.”

There are several reasons why details in the latest kidnapping — and news of the hostage recovery — are being closely watched by security officials. First, if Boko Haram is indeed responsible, its history of ultra-violent activity and extreme cruelty will significantly raise fears over the hostages’ safety if they haven’t been freed — and provoke questions of why they were left happily unharmed if that is confirmed. Second, Boko Haram has mainly waged its deadly campaigns in northern Nigeria. If it crossed into Cameroon — a country that had no record of jihadi activity until now — to stage the abduction, that could reflect Boko Haram expanding its range of action in the same cross-border manner that extremists farther north in the Sahel have in recent years.

And while it’s unlikely that Tuesday’s kidnapping was organized in concert with al-Qaeda-linked militias in the Sahel and other places in Africa, it still dovetails with the jihadi activity and aspirations elsewhere in the region. “There is a terrorist threat in much of West Africa,” said French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius after the Cameroon abduction. “It shows that the fight against terrorist groups is a necessity, because they threaten all of Africa.”

That growing security threat is what led French President François Hollande to respond to Tuesday’s kidnapping as justification of why “France is in Mali, and it will continue until its mission is completed.” Few observers contest the legitimacy of the French intervention against African extremists. But some security officials say waging that good fight will likely increase the short-term terrorism threat to Westerners in Africa as militant groups strike back. “Their common jihad can make these forces seem more organized and united than they actually are, but any overlap also lets all these groups benefit from the impact of a kidnapping or terror attack carried out by just one,” the French counterterrorism official says. “This is going to be a long battle, and it’s virtually impossible to keep all potential targets and victims out of danger. Africa’s a huge place, and there are thousands and thousands of [Europeans] there.”

MORE: France’s Next Move: With Mali’s Islamists on the Run, Time to Talk to the Tuaregs