British and Italian officials are checking a video received Thursday by Agence France-Presse which, if authenticated, will confirm not only the fate of two Westerners abducted in Nigeria in May, but the worrisome fact that al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has now extended its reach into Nigeria. 

While the Foreign Office in London deplored the release of the video and declined to divulge the name of the Briton shown on the video, a statement by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs identified the Italian hostage as Franco Lamolinara (the French news agency withheld the names when it reported the receipt of the video, which showed the two blindfolded and on their knees with three men holding weapons standing behind them). Apparently both hostages were engineers employed by B. Stabilini, an Italian construction firm that was building a branch office of the Central Bank of Nigeria in Birnin Kebbi, the capital of Kebbi state in northwestern Nigeria on the border with Niger and Benin, and were seized by armed attackers from their company apartment on May 12. According to AFP, which received the video, each man identified his captors as being from AQIM and urged their governments to meet all demands (last year, the Spanish government was reported to have paid up to €10 million in ransom for two of its citizens held by the terrorist group). 

Although AQIM has long carried out kidnappings for ransom, the current episode is the first time the group has reached into Nigeria for hostages. The move, however, should come as little surprise given that the group has shifted its operations southward over the last few years as it came under increasing pressure from governments in North Africa. AQIM has gradually spread its operations across the Sahara into Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and elsewhere. In many respects, the Sahel, the belt connecting North Africa and West Africa and straddling ancient trade and migration routes, was the ideal next step for AQIM. The region is strategically important for several reasons, including its role as a bridge between the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa as well as its important natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable. 

It is clear, as I documented in study earlier this year in the Journal of the Middle East and Africa, that AQIM adapted to its new environment and the new opportunities available as it moved southward. For example, there is evidence of AQIM’s having gotten involved in the burgeoning drug traffic transiting its operational area. While the question of whether or not AQIM itself has taken on a direct role in the smuggling of narcotics is still subject to often fierce debate, there are indications that it has worked with traffickers of cocaine and other contraband, offering them protection. And certainly AQIM is well positioned to benefit financially from the other lucrative illicit trade networks that cross the Sahara. Since the group’s members are familiar with the areas in which they operate, it is able to offer protection to the traffickers and tax the trade, especially in the absence of effective countervailing governmental structures. Moreover, AQIM has shown itself increasingly willing to make common cause with criminal elements in the interest of both augmenting its tactical and operational capabilities to carry out attacks, thus extending its strategic reach. The textbook case is its “subcontracting” in late 2009 of the actual kidnapping of three Spanish humanitarian workers out to a team led by a former senior officer of the Polisario, a guerrilla group contesting Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. 

While there have been kidnappings in Nigeria’s southern oil-producing regions, those have been the actions of criminal gangs, rather than a transnational terrorist group. Hence the arrival in Nigeria of a group like AQIM, which is “pragmatic” enough to link with whatever actors will most effectively help it achieve its operational goals, should be cause for great concern. As I have previously noted, the West African country is not only the most populous country on the continent, but because of its abundant energy resources, it is in a class of its own in terms of geopolitical importance, both in its own right and for the strategic interests of the United States and its European partners. 

In his recent book Al-Qaïda au Maghreb islamique: Contrebande au nom de l’Islam (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Smuggling in the Name of Islam), veteran Algerian journalist Mohammed Mokaddem argued that AQIM “has never hidden its ambition to bring in the Islamists of Nigeria in particular at the very moment when sectarian strife and conflict between Muslims and Christians is on the rise” in the West African nation, as they have been following the recent general elections. 

In fact, whether the abduction of the two hostages was carried out by AQIM directly or, as is more likely the case, a local group took them prisoner and then transferred them over, it adds up to one more headache for a Nigerian government already having difficulty dealing with the uprising in the north by Boko Haram, a brutally violent homegrown group of Islamist extremists who name literally translates from Hausa as “[Western] book-learning is sinful.” Just on Thursday, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a bomb blast that rocked Maiduguri, capital of northeastern Borno state, killing two people and injuring several others. And should AQIM link up with these local militants, the situation could very quickly deteriorate. 

Of course, the notoriously porous borders of the West African countries require that any effective effort to counter AQIM must be regional. And while tremendous progress has been achieved in recent years thanks in part to external efforts to encourage coordination like the United States-sponsored Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), which brings together Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia, rivalries between states in the region have proven an obstinate obstacle to greater integration.  In any event, while facilitating greater cooperation between the states of the region is a highly desirable objective, both in itself as political goal and for the sake of more effective operations against AQIM, to really eradicate the challenge which the group presents, one must eventually confront the current condition of political stasis, economic stagnation, social atrophy, and cultural discontinuity which have proven to be such a potent fillip to the expansion of AQIM in the region as well as the nourished local groups like Boko Haram and the militants in the Niger Delta. That would require a longer-term commitment both to opening up the political systems of the region to those who have been marginalized up to now and creating economic opportunities for the growing youth population. 

In the meantime, the United States as well as its European allies and African partners will need to be vigilant as al-Qaeda’s North African franchise spreads south to the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, it will undoubtedly present them with increasingly greater challenges in the months and years ahead. 

J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.