Some thoughts on the latest events in the Sahel (1). The two French hostages of Hombori are neither spies nor mercenaries.

Posted on 7our.posterous.com on December 12, 2011.

We witnessed an acceleration of events lately in the Sahel with an almost daily flood of news. I had to change somewhat the structure of the text I was about to publish. Instead of a text too long, here’s a little post on the security in Mali and about the kidnapping episode in Hombori.

Regarding the security context, we must first pay tribute to the tourism professionnals who stopped an important part of their activities on behalf of the precautionary principle. Even if this brave decision put their companies in dire financial situations. Otherwise, we could have seen a bigger number of abductions in the area.

Indeed, one of the first to sound the alarm bell at the end of 2010 was Maurice Freund, President of Point-Afrique. He pointed at the time the rise in number of AQIM fighters and the failure of Mali to deal with. The latest events confirm a posteriori the relevance of his statements, considered at the time as alarmist for no reason. He wrote « If the Tuareg population in its majority is in no way complicit with the terrorist, and is not attracted by their religious fanaticism, it is clear that young Tuareg join this nebula and lend them a hand (greed? sincere engagement? the choice of motives is wide …)« . Point-Afrique decided then a complete cessation of tourism activity in Algeria, stop Agadez and maintain activity south of Niamey in Niger, stop Gao/North Mali and maintain tourism in Dogon country for Mali, and launched an audit for Mauritania.

The failure of Bamako in the fight against crime and terrorism has come to alert other organizers of tourism trekking. « We have no confidence in the situation in Mali, with a total lack of control by the Government of Mali, and civil or military authorities riddled with corruption at the highest level » said Gérard Guerrier, president of « Collectif sécurité » of trekking agencies  ATT (Association des tour-opérateurs thématiques).

Yes, French travel agencies have sounded the first alarm. They avoided already the area of Hombori for over a year, although it was classified only as « orange » by the Quai d’Orsay. On november 23, beyond the recommendations of French Foreign Ministry, the « Collectif sécurité » decided to suspend simply all travels to Mali, including the southern part with tourist sites such as Djenne and Dogon area. It is worth to note that these decisions were made before the two abductions in Hombori were known to the participants.

This leads to the main purpose of this article. Who are the two hostages Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic?

Officially, Philippe Verdon led for several months a financial and mineral feasibility study for a cement unit in Hombori with a local partner « Les Ciments de Fatma-Mali SA ». He promised  to obtain funds and capital from a South African financial company. Then on the night of November 23 to 24, at their hotel Doumbia in Hombori, Philippe Verdon and his friend Serge Lazarevic were abducted by a gang of seven armed men.

Much speculation has surrounded the past of these two men. They are now suspected by AQIM of being spies, which is particularly a life-threatening accusation.

Here are some thoughts on this duo :

1. Since when spies operate without false identity? Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic had no fake identity. They were traveling with their real passports.

2. Serge Lazarevic was confused with Slobodan Lazarevic. The French Lazarevic, who is director of a small security company, subcontractor in the building industry,  was born in June 1963. While the Serbian Slobodan Lazarevic joined the Yugoslav Army’s intelligence service in 1968!

In the photo sent by AQIM, French Lazarevic is on the left,  while on thissite the Serbian is visible in uniform. A Homonymity on which most of the media did not pay attention.

3. The French were suspected of being secret agents, wanting to train a group of Tuareg fighters returning from Libya to tackle the AQIM. This project exists. It is funded by the European Union and other Western countries. The trainers are from different countries, CanadaGreat BritainEuropean Union  and elsewhere. The supervision of training and structuring of joint units of the Malian army incorporating the Touareg is an official projet. It’s not a secret and hidden operation, and above all it will be carried out by professionnals, soldiers and members of security forces, not by mercenaries.

4. Was the French Duo in a parallel negotiation with the AQIM to free the abducted French technicians in Arlit in Niger? Our two protagonists were new to the Malian and Sahelian scenes. They were apparently not in contact with local negotiators. They had in fact no detailed knowledge of the environment in which they were moving. And France dipose of other former military veterans with a better knowledge of the context there.

Clearly, the French duo was made up of two adventurers who pushed into the risk-return ratio the first argument a bit too far.

This brings me to the issue of logistical support to AQIM. Malians and Touareg overwhelmingly reject the ideology of AQIM, they do not support its activities. But only one informant per village is enough to provide them with crucial information, one sleeper cell is sufficient to achieve a one-time operation as a kidnapping, a small provider is enough for them to have the essentials for survival. They do not require a massive support of the local population.

Under these conditions, it is worthwhile to remember Maurice Freund statements there is almost a year. He wrote « One of my friends, Ag Aroudeni, brother of the amenokal Oulmeliden (the largest tribe Tuareg) confesses « no longer understand. » And told me of his concern, because for some time in his commune, he sees moving preachers, some from Pakistan, that came to teach Salafism. Their preaching is accompanied by well construction, aid to the people and of course the construction of mosques. They are not terrorists, but they make the bed by exploiting Islam for political purposes. There is little time, AQIM members were a handful of one hundred to two hundred men. Now they approach or exceed the thousand fighters … and sleeper cells are born everywhere!« .

The kidnapping in Hombori had nothing special. And coupled with the Tumbuktu event, they form together a signal of danger to all Western people in a larger area of the Sahel now.

Baki @7our Mansour

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5 commentaires pour Some thoughts on the latest events in the Sahel (1). The two French hostages of Hombori are neither spies nor mercenaries.

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  5. 7our dit :

    Manually added by @7our during transfer of the blog.
    Priffe left on 7our.posterous.com this comment

    @Priffe: « No, not convinced. There are many Lazarevic, and I don’t know what this Slobodan has to do with anything. Whether the two French were involved in other activities than minerals we don’t know – there is certainly a possibility. Frenchman Camatte who was kidnapped near Menaka a few years ago was doing research for anti-malaria herbs, but there was also reasons to think he reported to the DGSE (not all are fulll-time employées).
    And I don’t know why this is so important for others than themselves. That the French DGSE and military are active in the region is not under debate. The question was if they are actually training and equipping touareg commandos, and that is still an open question.
    There is an army base near Gao where Nato are training Malian soldiers, operation Flintlock. That has nothing to do with the above. »

    My answer was
    @7our: « The medias have said that Serge Lazarevic was a Serbian mercenary, that he had been accused of trying to assassinate Slobodan Milosevic, and had participated in the recruitment of mercenaries sent to fight in Zaire from Yugoslavia in the 90s. Sorry, it’s all about the other and older Slobodan Lazarevic.
    Malian President received at the beginning of december a delegation of Tuareg soldiers returning from Libya. The plan is to integrate them into the Malian army to secure the north of Mali. It is fiction to believe that there is a French secret parallel operation to train and equip Tuareg commandos, while there is an official international mobilization to « stabilize » northern Mali. Why send « amateurs » perform this task when NATO officers are already there on the ground ? »

    Then on Dec 16, 2011, I updated with a link.
    @7our: « Families defend the French hostages kidnapped in Mali » (RFI)
    http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20111214-familles-defendent-otages-francais-kidnappes-mali

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