DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The man who authorities have identified as the lead suspect in the recent kidnapping and murder of two French radio journalists in Mali has had previous run-ins with the law, officials said Thursday.
Baye Ag Bakabo, from the Tuareg ethnic group, was arrested and jailed circa 2009 after allegedly stealing the vehicle of an army lieutenant in the city center of Kidal, the troubled northern Malian town where the journalists were grabbed last Saturday, said a senior Malian intelligence official. The official, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Bakabo was part of a mafia that stole cars from dignitaries in the north, and then sold them at a premium to members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, whose fighters are embedded in Mali's vast desert.
Radio France Internationale's senior correspondent Ghislaine Dupont, 57, and 55-year-old technician Claude Verlon had just finished interviewing a Tuareg rebel leader in Kidal when they were grabbed at around 1 p.m. on Nov. 2. Their bodies were found just hours later near their kidnapper's car, which had a broken steering wheel, possibly indicating that the car had broken down.
After his release from prison in 2010, Bakabo joined the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb platoon led by commander Abdelkarim al-Targui, also an ethnic Tuareg, the official said.
Bakabo was given the nom de guerre Abdelnasser and was part of the brigade that invaded the central Malian town of Diabaly in January, according to a fighter from Kidal with the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, who knows Bakabo personally and who could not be named out of fear for his safety. That invasion marked the southernmost point that the jihadists succeeded in taking and briefly holding, before being pushed back by a French military intervention.
Al-Qaida's North African terror cell was thrown into disarray as the French military pushed fighters into the desert north of Kidal, and the network's top leader Abou Zeid was killed, the official said.
Bakabo then allegedly stole a significant sum of money from the terror group, and absconded to Kidal, where he was offered cover by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad. Bakabo is from the same Tuareg clan as rebel leader Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, whom the RFI journalists had just finished interviewing at the time of their abduction, the official said.
Witnesses said that the journalists were taken by four armed men speaking Tamashek, the Tuareg language. The intelligence official on Thursday identified a second suspect as Ahmed Ag Mohamed Lamine Fall, also a Tuareg who is originally from Mauritania.
Fall was allegedly recruited by Bakabo, along with two others, to capture the RFI journalists and deliver them as hostages to erase Bakabo's debt with the al-Qaida-linked group, the same official said. When their car broke down 12 kilometers (7 miles) outside Kidal, they likely panicked and killed the hostages, he added.
Conflicting information has emerged regarding how the hostages were killed. Malian officials said that they had their throats slit. French authorities said they were killed by gunfire, but gave differing accounts on the number of bullets.
Investigators have been puzzled by why the attackers chose to kill the two journalists, rather than hold them for ransom. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has raised at least $89 million in ransom payments since 2003, after successfully carrying out at least 18 kidnappings of foreigners, many of them French nationals, according to global intelligence unit Stratfor.
The most recent kidnapping had the appearance of an amateur operation: The abductors had a single car, while past kidnappings were carried out with a minimum of two cars, said Jean-Paul Rouiller, the director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism and an expert on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Late Thursday, a Mauritanian website claimed they had received a message from Targui's unit taking responsibility for the killings, which they said were in retaliation for the "daily crimes" committed by French, Malian, and United Nations troops in northern Mali. A member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb who runs the group's Twitter account, however, refused to acknowledge that al-Qaida was involved, and the group's Twitter feed made no mention of the deaths of the journalists.
"What this shows is that it was an improvised operation," said Rouiller. "It was eventually endorsed by Targui, but it did not originate with him."