Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, April 2010
Failed French Attack on Al-Shabab Leads to the Death of Two French Soldiers and Scores of Somalis
Al Shabaab tweets photos of slain French soldier
By Leela JACINTO (text)
France 24, January 14, 2013
In a propaganda coup for al Shabaab and an embarrassment for France, the Somali militant group released photos Monday of what appeared to be a dead French soldier captured during Saturday’s failed French military raid in Somalia.
Months after al Shabaab was routed from the key Somali port city of Kismayu, the (Somali Resistance Movement) group scored a gruesome propaganda coup on Monday with the publication of photos of what appeared to be a dead French soldier captured during Saturday’s failed French raid.
The photos, posted on the group’s Twitter account, showed a white man in a blood-soaked shirt lying on an orange tarp on a bed of dry leaves. A close-up shot revealed a silver cross pendant around the victim’s neck sticking out of his shirt collar in what appeared to be a carefully arranged image.
The accompanying captions were characteristically taunting: “A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword,” said the text accompanying the close-up shot. Another photo, which showed the victim with guns, ammunition clips and a helmet placed between his legs, bore the caption: “François Hollande, was it worth it?”
Al Shabaab’s verbal stab at the French president came two days after a military raid to rescue a French intelligence officer held captive since July 2009 ended in disaster.
According to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, two French commandos were killed in a heavy firefight and the hostage, Denis Allex, is believed to have been killed.
Al Shabaab however maintained the French intelligence agent was alive and that a “verdict” on his fate had been reached. It has not as yet revealed details of the “verdict”.
Responding to the Twitter postings on Monday, France denounced the “odious” display of photographs of the dead soldier.
But since the news of Saturday’s botched raid in the southern Somali village of Bula Mareer broke, there was little doubt the Somalia-based militant group would exploit the incident for its jihadist propaganda purposes.
“This is a propaganda bonanza for al Shabaab. It feeds into the traditional narrative that anyone who comes to Somalia will be defeated,” said Abdullahi Halakhe, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There are reports of serious fire between al Shabaab militants and French elite commandos during the raid, which lasted under an hour. So it tells you that al Shabaab are still there, they’re still a presence.”
According to the French daily Le Monde, French military believed the militants were only equipped with light arms such as kalashnikovs, but they were actually equipped with heavy weapons.
Optimism in Mogadishu, Shabaab in the countryside
Barely four months ago, al Shabaab lost their last major stronghold of Kismayu to Kenyan troops under an African Union mission, losing a key source of revenue.
The fall of Kismayu came a year after the group was forced out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, sparking hopes that Somalia - a long-time topper of the world’s failed states list – was entering a new era.
In September 2012, Somalia elected a new president just a month after a historic parliamentary swearing-in – the first on Somali soil in over two decades.
As members of the far-flung Somali diaspora returned home to invest in their war-shattered homeland, correspondents filed optimistic reports of the Mogadishu property boom in a reinvigorated economy.
But even as Mogadishu bustled with optimism, international analysts and ordinary Somalis were keenly aware that al Shabaab was down, but not out.
“They were never militarily defeated. They just folded and left the cities,” said Halakhe, for the rural areas in the southern Lower Shabelle region, where French commandos encountered the group.
Questions of intelligence and US support
If Saturday’s botched raid was a victory for al Shabaab, on the other side, it’s a defeat not just for the French, but for the African and international community as well.
“It calls to question what kind of human intelligence the French had,” said Halakhe. “Somalia is not an easy place. The French know this. I’m not sure of the level of intelligence shared with the US, which has better intelligence on Somalia.”
US President Barack Obama has acknowledged that US forces provided limited technical support for the operation, but said they had played no role in the fighting.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Vince Canistraro, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, said the intelligence sharing between France and the US over the Saturday raid was “not significant”.
According to Canistraro, the US intelligence community has a low level of involvement in Somalia. “The US has been involved in a few drone attacks against al Shabaab, but it’s not an active area of involvement. If we had prisoners or hostages on the ground, it would be different,” he said.
Canistraro also added that as an ally of France, the US would not criticise the French botched operation.
‘Damned if they know, damned if they don’t know’ If the US has refrained from criticising France over the raid, that has not been the case with the Somali government’s response.
At a press conference in Mogadishu on Sunday, Somali Foreign Minister Fosia Yusuf Haji Aden condemned the military operation. “We regret this military operation and we condemn the unilateral action taken without the [Somali] government 's knowledge,” said Aden. “The Somali Federal Government sends condolences to the dead victims, including Somali victims and French soldiers.”
French officials say 17 militants were killed, while witnesses said eight civilians were killed in the Bula Mareer raid.
Analysts say France’s failure to inform the host government of an upcoming raid for security reasons is perfectly understandable, pointing to Washington’s decision to keep the Pakistani government in the dark about the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid.
But Halakhe notes that the failed mission to free Allex puts the Somali government in a tough spot.
“If the Somali government says they didn’t know, it makes them appear weak. If they did know, they appear to be Western collaborators. They’re damned if they know and damned if they don’t know,” explained Halakhe.
For the African Union (AU) - which has a peacekeeping alliance of East African militaries in Somalia (AMISOM) – the fallout of the failed raid is especially serious.
“Al Shabaab is very good at media operations to be honest. I’m sure they will milk this in their master narrative,” said Halakhe. “They will say, look we have the upper hand, we’ll do the same with the Kenyans, the Ugandans and the Burundians,” said Halakhe, referring to the East African militaries involved in AMISOM. “In the next few days it will be interesting to hear what AU officials will have to say. It’s not going to look good for AU-France relations.”***
French spy held captive in Somalia pleads for release
Three years after he was abducted in Somalia, French secret agent Denis Allex made a rare video appearance pleading with French President François Hollande for his release. Little is known about one of France’s murkiest hostage situations.
By Leela JACINTO (text)
France 24, Oct 6, 2012
Looking pale and gaunt after three years of captivity, a French secret agent who was abducted in 2009 by Islamist militants in Somalia issued an emotional plea to French President François Hollande to secure his release, in a videotaped statement posted on jihadist forums this week.
The slickly produced video clip titled “Message to François Hollande” features a bearded Denis Allex reading out a statement in his native French. The four-minute video also offers English subtitles.
“I record this message, which I direct to you personally in the month of July 2012, 3 years after my abduction, 3 years away from my family, my wife and my children; 3 years of solitude,” reads the English transcript of his statement.
A graphic credit at the end of the video features the imprint “Al-Kataib”– the media arm of the Somali al Shabaab Islamist movement – and is dated August 2012.
But the four-minute clip was only released Thursday by SITE, a US-based private service that monitors extremist websites.
The video was apparently shot to coincide with Hollande's assumption of the French presidency following his May 2012 election victory over then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
It is not clear why the tape took so long to surface.
When questioned by FRANCE 24, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on whether French intelligence was aware of the existence of the video over the past few months.
"In these situations, which are particularly complex, we must be very discreet in the interest of our hostages, and in the interest of Denis Allex," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.
Speaking Friday at a press conference in Paris, Lalliot said the video was in the process of authentication and he stressed that the French government was doing its best to secure the release of the captured Frenchman.
According to Adam Raisman, a senior analyst at SITE, there’s often a time lag between production and release dates of jihadist media messages.
“Al Shabaab often produces media that it’s not able to release as soon as it would like,” said Raisman in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “Some audio messages can be posted immediately, but video messages can take longer. Dates marked on videos are also difficult to ascertain.”
A murky case of captivity It’s just one of many details that have been difficult to confirm in a shadowy case that, more than three years later, continues to generate more questions than answers.
French authorities – including France’s external intelligence agency the DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security) – have been tight-lipped about the issue.
In a country where hostages – such as the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt – can become household names with giant banners draped on public buildings demanding their release, Allex’s captivity has generated little public attention.
Even his captors – the group al Shabaab, linked to al Qaeda and a particularly prolific communicator on jihadist forums – have been relatively silent about their French hostage.
“There have been only two videos of Denis Allex since he was captured,” said Raisman. “One video was released in June 2010 and the second one was released on Thursday. Between those dates, there have been no communiqués, no messages about him.”
A suspicious escape
The circumstances surrounding Allex’s capture have been also been murky.
Allex - along with another French secret agent, Marc Aubriere – was seized on July 14, 2009 from a hotel in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
At that time, the two men were identified as security consultants posing as journalists. The pair was purportedly in Somalia to train troops from the UN-backed interim government, which was then battling al Shabaab and other Islamist rebels.
The two were believed to have been separated during a gun battle between al Shabaab and another Islamist group, Hizbul Islam.
A month later, Aubriere got away from his Hizbul Islam captors. In an interview with the BBC’s Somali service, Aubriere said he managed to slip out at midnight while the guards were asleep.
But many Somalis found it hard to believe Aubriere’s version of events – including the assertion that he walked through a dangerous city like Mogadishu unharmed and unnoticed for five hours.
French officials, however, categorically denied that any ransom was paid for Aubriere’s release.
Not a favourable time for negotiations
In the statement released Thursday, Allex said he hoped Hollande’s “handling of my case will be different from that of President Sarkozy and his government," before blaming his detention on France's policies toward Islam.
“The door to negotiations are still open if you are sincere and honest,” said Allex. “It is your duty towards me, since I was taken hostage whilst working for France.”
But according to Roland Marchal, a leading Somalia expert at the Paris-based CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) it’s a particularly difficult time to try and secure the release of al Shabaab captives.
"Al Shabaab have lost ground, their organization has weakened. The frontline is moving and communication channels are tricky,” said Marchal. “All this means the climate is not very favourable for negotiations.”
Over the past few weeks, al Shabaab has been steadily losing ground since it was forced out of Mogadishu in August 2011.
Last month, a reconstituted Somali Army – assisted by African Union troops – captured the key southern Somali port city of Kismayu. The loss of Kismayu port is a major blow to al Shabaab militants, depriving them of revenue from taxing local businesses and lucrative shipping transactions.
Experts believe the loss of territory could lead al Shabaab to conduct low-level yet deadly attacks such as suicide bombings in Mogadishu. Under such circumstances, the fates of al Shabaab hostages are particularly fragile.
In his latest video message to Hollande, Allex warned that he feared for his life.
"Mr. President, I am still alive but for how long? That depends on you, for if you do not reach an agreement for my release then I am afraid this will be the last message you receive from me," he said.
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