Australian still being held in Mali despite prisoner swap
23 Oct 2020|

In a major hostage exchange in Mali earlier this month, nearly 200 jihadists held by the Mali government were swapped for a French woman, two Italians and a kidnapped Malian politician. The exchange didn’t include Australian surgeon Ken Elliott, 85, who has been held by jihadists there since January 2016.

Those released were French aid worker Sophie Petronin and Italians Father Pierluigi Maccalli and tourist Nicola Chiacchio, along with prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse.

Why Elliott wasn’t included is not clear. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says it engages in ‘quiet diplomacy’ in hostage cases involving Australians but does not seem to have been involved in this latest round of talks, either through our high commission in Ghana (the post responsible for Mali) or the Australian embassy in Paris.

It’s possible that Australia was not even aware of the exchange negotiations.

France is the former colonial ruler and still has the most influence of any external power in the region. It has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel region as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane. The force is headquartered at N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, with French forces located in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The US has about 1,200 military personnel in West Africa, with a significant percentage in Niger, which has become the key American hub on that side of the continent.

Elliott and his wife, Joyce, first moved to Djibo in Burkina Faso, which borders Mali, in 1972. There they built a hospital and performed medical procedures on people from across the region. Because of their advanced age, they had been trying unsuccessfully to get someone else to take over the unsalaried running of the hospital.

On 16 January 2016, the Elliotts were abducted from the hospital by an Islamist extremist group from across the border in Mali. Jocelyn was released weeks later after the group said it did not involve women in war, but she was more likely released because of her age and the adverse local reaction to her detention.

Back then, the group holding Elliott called itself ‘Emirate of the Sahara’. This group was linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Algerian Abu Yahya al Hammam.

On 2 March 2017, the Sahara branch of AQIM merged with the Macina Liberation Front, Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun and other smaller groups to become Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) (meaning ‘Group to Support Islam and Muslims’), led by Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghali. JNIM became the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali after the various group leaders swore allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The group holding Elliott would now be part of JNIM.

JNIM is mainly located in northern Mali, but an early 2020 report by Burkina Faso’s L’Evenement newspaper said Elliott was being guarded by 20 armed men in Mali’s central Mopti region. That may no longer be the case as hostages are moved frequently due to JNIM’s concerns about recovery raids by French and US special forces.

Other JNIM hostages are Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, South African Christo Bothma and Romanian Julian Ghergut.

Released hostage Sophie Petronin told French authorities that JNIM had killed Swiss hostage Beatrice Stoeckli ‘about a month ago’.

AQIM has a long history of taking hostages in the Sahara and Sahel; it is estimated to have raised at least US$50 million through kidnap for ransom.

All of the Islamist groups in Mali aspire to displace the country’s French-backed government and replace it with a caliphate run by clerics under sharia law. The eight-year-old jihadist insurgency that began in the north of Mali has spread to the country’s centre and is now affecting bordering Niger and Burkina Faso.

Trying to organise a hostage release in Mali is undoubtedly complicated due to the number of Islamist factions involved, poor communications, large area and poor infrastructure. This year Covid-19 has been an additional factor.

Mali is also in the aftermath of a military coup that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on 18 August. Keita was replaced on 25 September by an interim president, Bah Ndaw, a former foreign minister and retired colonel selected by the military junta. Ndaw has appointed a 25-member government, in which four key posts have gone to colonels.

However, despite the many difficulties involved, this latest exchange was probably the best opportunity to get Elliott released in the nearly five years since he was taken hostage. JNIM’s apparent reluctance to release him is probably due to his value to the group as a medical doctor, which hopefully means he is being reasonably well treated.

Australia should now be involved in the debriefing of the released European hostages to gain more information about Elliott’s situation.