There’s the British-accented jihadi defiantly addressing the camera, the attempts at slick cuts between desert scenes, and the Western hostages in chains. But this isn’t an Islamic State video; it’s a dispatch from the Sahara branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s Mali affiliate. It’s the latest example of how radical Islamist groups are appropriating the visual language of the Islamic State and attempting to imitate its strikingly successful propaganda efforts.
AQIM’s new video shows the last two Western hostages held in Mali, Swede Johan Gustofsson and South African Stephen McGowan, pleading to their respective governments in the video produced by the Saharan branch of AQIM’s media wing, Al Andalus.
The video opens with a man addressing the camera and speaking in tones made famous by “Jihadi John,” the fighter who gained infamy for beheading Western hostages on tape. “Welcome to the world’s largest prison, a prison that has no boundaries, a prison that has no walls, no cells, no bars. A prison with a fear, where prison break is nonexistent,” the masked AQIM fighter says. “This is the mujahideen’s prison — the Sahara.” The jihadist then points out that the area is part of the “new territory controlled by the mujahideen.” It is unclear what area the captor is referring to, although it may be in central Mali.
The video was likely recorded in late 2014, as the jihadist in the video explains that the two were captured “three years ago.”
The two hostages are then seen having their handcuffs removed (above) before being taken to a wooded area where questioning commences between them and the jihadists. A narrator explains to the viewer that the two have been held for over 1000 days after being captured in Timbuktu in 2011 by a “special unit” of AQIM.
The two hostages are then seen asking a series of questions about the status of negotiations for their release. Their captor tells them that “The French government is impeding the negotiations.” The figure says that the French and Malian governments are trying to buy time so that they “do not have to submit to the demands of the mujahideen.”
“They are making it very difficult for your governments and the mujahideen to come to an agreement,” he continues. The jihadist then shows the two a video of former French hostage Serge Lazarevic being released. Lazarevic was seized in 2011 in Mali by AQIM forces there. He was kidnapped along with another French national, Philippe Verdon, who was killed in 2013 by AQIM in Mali. Lazarevic was released late last year in exchange for four AQIM militants. However, the jihadist in the video says that seven AQIM fighters were released, including two that were involved in the kidnapping of Lazarevic.
After expressing shock that they were not included in those negotiations, McGowan speaks directly to the camera. In a statement directed at the South African government, he says that he hopes it “continues to assist” in his release. “I hope something can be done,” he continues, “I hope a negotiation can be brokered.”
McGowan then speaks to his family saying that he loves them and that he is thankful for their support. To his wife, he says he hopes they can still pursue the plans they had before his capture. Gustofsson then makes a statement expressing his sadness for putting his family through the difficulties of his captivity.
Gustofsson then pleads to the Swedish government to “help in giving information and support to my family.” To his family, he also expresses his love and tells them to continue to live their lives. “I don’t know how this is going to end,” he says, “but our time together till now has been wonderful.” He then speaks to the French government saying that “France has a big responsibility” to help in their release.
McGowan and Gustofsson were kidnapped in Timbuktu in 2011, along with Dutch citizen Sjaak Rijke. A German national was also with them, but he died in the assault. Rijke appeared in an AQIM video released in November alongside Serge Lazarevic, in which both spoke to their respective governments for their release. Rijke was freed in April after a French raid on AQIM militants in northern Mali. According to the BBC, his presence caught the French special operators by surprise; it was only after the fighting was over when they realized the militants were holding the Dutch hostage. (For more information, see LWJ reports, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb video features French, Dutch hostages and French forces free Dutch hostage in Mali.)
AQIM has a history of taking Western hostages. In 2010, Michel Germaneau, a French hostage held by AQIM, died while in captivity. And in 2013, four French hostages were released by AQIM after being held for three years; it is speculated that a ransom of 20 million Euros was paid to free them.
Before that, AQIM was responsible for the kidnapping of Spanish nationals in Mauritania and an Italian and French national in Mali in 2009, as well as many more abductions throughout North Africa. The al Qaeda branch’s prolific kidnappings have even led senior al Qaeda leaders to tighten their control over the hostage-taking operations.
In November 2010, AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel made a surprising claim in a video that was aired on Al Jazeera. Droukdel said that France would have to negotiate with Osama bin Laden himself to secure the release of several French hostages. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations.]
As a statement, the video is more an homage to the style of the Islamic State than a replication of their efforts. The captives aren’t seen wearing orange jumpsuits, and no threats are issued against the hostages’ lives. The AQIM video isn’t nearly as slick as those produced by the Islamic State. The audio quality is lower. The lighting is worse. It includes several cartoonish, melodramatic moments, in which fighters try to impress the viewer and come across looking somewhat buffoonish. But in comparison to their previous video showcasing Western hostages, the latest AQIM video marks a step-up in production quality.
The attempt to imitate the Islamic State comes amid a reported split within AQIM as to whether it should pledge allegiance to the group that has established what it calls a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq. In December, AQIM’s judicial authority said that the Islamic State had not met the requirements in Islamic law to establish a caliphate. Then in March, two AQIM divisions reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Monday’s hostage video contains no reference to the Islamic State and AQIM’s relationship to it. But within the context of the sophisticated public relations campaigns waged by AQIM and similar groups, it’s difficult not to interpret this visual homage to its brutal Syrian cousin as a slight tacking toward that group.
MI5 and MI6 are believed to be investigating the video and the apparent Briton, according to the Telegraph. A senior Whitehall source agreed that al-Qaeda was trying to mimic the Jihadi John persona and style of video.