PARIS — As France reinforced its intervention forces in Mali with additional aircraft and soldiers, Frenc commandos launched a failed raid on the other side of Africa in a vain attempt to rescue an intelligence officer held captive for 3½ years in Somalia, the Defense Ministry announced Saturday.
The unsuccessful overnight rescue attempt, in the Somali town of Bulomarer, was separate from President Francois Hollande’s decision Friday to intervene on the ground and in the air to shore up the crumbling Malian army against Islamist guerrilla groups that have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country for more than seven months.
But both operations seemed to propel France into a position of new prominence in Western efforts to prevent Islamist terrorist groups from establishing themselves — as they did in Afghanistan and Somalia — in countries without solid state institutions that could become launchpads for attacks on European or U.S. interests in Africa or elsewhere around the world.
The failed rescue in Somalia, which cost France the lives of at least two people, dramatized the dangers facing the French military as it takes on the Islamist groups in hostile regions of northern Africa where they have taken root. The Mali-based extremists, for instance, hold seven French hostages and threatened retaliation for Hollande’s willingness to dispatch French soldiers to help restore Malian state authority.
Four French hostages captured in September 2010 at a northern Niger uranium mine and two abducted in northern Mali in November 2010 are held by the region’s main Islamist group, the mainly Algerian al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A seventh French citizen was taken into custody two months ago on the Mali-Nigeria border by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an AQMI spinoff.
Some of their families have questioned Hollande’s resolution to support the government in Mali, fearing it could lead to the execution of their loved ones. But Hollande has consistently replied that the threat of international military action was the best means of pressure on the hostage takers.
Failure in Somalia
The Somalia rescue operation was designed to liberate Denis Allex, the official identity of an agent of the French intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE). Allex and a colleague were abducted by Somali Islamists in July 2009, soon after the pair, posing as journalists, checked into a hotel in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
In fact, reports at the time said, they were assigned by the DGSE to train the close protection squad of Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government as part of a French military aid program. Allex’s colleague escaped his captors a month later, but Allex remained in the Islamists’ hands in what the Defense Ministry described as “inhumane conditions.”
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference that “everything indicates” Allex was killed by his captors as DGSE commandos assaulted his place of imprisonment at Bulomarer, an Islamist-controlled town about 70 miles southwest of Mogadishu.