AQIM has kidnapped hostages throughout the entire Sahel sub-region, transporting them to remote northern Mali to be held until a ransom and release is negotiated. To a lesser extent, the jihadist group also aims to exchange the foreigners it holds for imprisoned AQIM members held by authorities in the region.While foreign governments officially state that they do not negotiate with AQIM or other terrorist groups, AQIM has been able to extract significant ransom payments and arrange prisoner trades. U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said Oct. 5 that the al Qaeda network as a whole has earned kidnapping revenues of approximately $120 million since 2004, adding that AQIM has become the most proficient of the al Qaeda franchises at profiting from kidnappings. This is likely due to AQIM's success in establishing a credible negotiating framework through the demonstration of hardball tactics. When negotiations do not meet AQIM's expectations, the group will execute a hostage, kill a hostage during a recovery attempt, or permit a hostage to die of illnesses contracted while in captivity.
Ransom payments to AQIM, made directly or via proxies like the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, have totaled an estimated $89 million since 2003. According to a spokesman for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, AQIM's most recent payout was about $19.4 million, received in mid-July in exchange for the release of three aid workers (two Spanish and one Italian) kidnapped in Tindouf, Algeria, in October 2011. This ransom shows how high payments have risen, shooting up from an estimated $400,000 per hostage in 2003 to several million dollars per hostage in July 2012.AQIM is currently holding several foreign nationals who were taken in Mali in November 2011. The group of hostages includes two European tourists and one South African kidnapped from Timbuktu and two French citizens kidnapped from Hombori (these hostages may be French intelligence agents sent to negotiate the other hostages' release). AQIM also holds three Algerian diplomats who were kidnapped in Gao in April 2012.
AQIM most likely uses these kidnappings to gain ransom money to financially underwrite its jihadist operations, meaning the group will kidnap or compel a hostage resolution again when its cash reserves get low. AQIM hostage incident data for the past several years show that the militant group's kidnapping operations have evolved to the point of generating an average of $2 million in ransoms per month, though revenues each month vary considerably.
Kidnappings are not AQIM's sole means of support. AQIM also takes in revenue from smuggling commodities such as cocaine, cigarettes and guns, most likely as well as humans, across the Sahel to gain remittances from its supporters in the diaspora. However, data on these revenue streams are not readily available, so this analysis focuses only on the data collected on AQIM's increasingly profitable kidnapping operations.
AQIM may currently have about $16 million left from its July ransom, which — under normal circumstances — could last until around May 2013. However, AQIM is now likely spending at a higher rate than usual to acquire guns, ammunition and manpower as it faces the threat of being targeted by the Malian army, a proposed Economic Community of West African States peacekeeping force and U.S. and French counterterrorism operations in the region. This trend of higher spending can be seen in Algerian reports that AQIM is increasing defensive measures around the northern Malian towns under its control, namely Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
AQIM may make tactical adjustments such as safeguarding personnel movements to reduce its exposure to the heightened threat against it, but the jihadist group is not likely to abandon its yearslong struggle in the Maghreb and the Sahel. It simply does not have the option to decline combat and retreat to a safe place; the group must survive in ungoverned spaces surrounded by hostile governments. Still, it will take counterterrorism forces a considerable amount of time to either contain AQIM or infiltrate and neutralize its leadership and cells.
Editor's note: The number of AQIM kidnapping missions since February 2003 has been updated to reflect the group's recent hostage-taking raids. This analysis was also updated to correct the nationality of one of the hostages taken in November 2011. A South African man was part of the group kidnapped in Timbuktu.