French ‘journalists’ kidnapped in Somalia were government agents

When Somali militant group al-Shabab pledged recently to go after any foreign troops operating in Somalia, nobody, probably even the militants themselves, expected that it would be the French. On Tuesday, two French “security advisers” were kidnapped from the Sahafi hotel in Mogadishu: The pair, who had been in the country for just over a ...

583376_090717_sahafi5.jpg
583376_090717_sahafi5.jpg

When Somali militant group al-Shabab pledged recently to go after any foreign troops operating in Somalia, nobody, probably even the militants themselves, expected that it would be the French.

On Tuesday, two French “security advisers” were kidnapped from the Sahafi hotel in Mogadishu:

The pair, who had been in the country for just over a week, were registered as reporters, but a senior Somali official said that they had been sent by France to train Somali security agencies.

The French Foreign Ministry confirmed that the kidnapped men were “helping the federal transition government of Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in security matters”.

The intrigue continues: It is unclear who did the actual kidnapping. Sources inside Somalia, including those of NYT reporter Jeffrey Gettleman (who has written about Somalia for FP) suggest that the kidnappers were renegade soldiers from the government forces the French agents were supposed to be working with. The Somali Interior Minister denied any involvment of the government. 

Regardless of who did it, the two Frenchmen now appear to be in the hands of al-Shabab, the most powerful anti-government militia group. According to reports from the BBC and Bloomberg, the kidnappers handed off the men to the less extreme militant group Hizbul-Islam, which passed them on to al-Shabab. The AFP reports that French and U.S. diplomats have made contact and are trying to negotiate a release. One has to wonder which “diplomats” these countries have in Mogadishu.

There is also controversy over the French operatives’ cover as journalists. Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage, saying such falsehoods put real journalists at risk. The French Foreign Ministry has tried to downplay the allegation, saying it has no information that the agents did this. It did not issue an outright denial, however and the manager of the hotel claims the men told him they were journalists when they checked in. Sahafi means journalist in Arabic and the hotel was known as a base for foreign reporters in Mogadishu.

ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images

<p> Michael Wilkerson, a journalist and former Fulbright researcher in Uganda, is a graduate student in politics at Oxford University, where he is a Marshall Scholar. </p>

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