Hostages Released From Northern Mali: Negotiating With Terrorists, A Conceivable Solution?

On the 8th of October, four hostages from France, Italy and Mali were released by armed groups in Mali. French aid worker Sophie Pétronin landed on Friday in Paris after almost four years in captivity. Mali opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, kidnapped in March, was also released, alongside Italian hostages Father Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio. Freedom for these hostages came after the release of more than 100 jihadist prisoners held by the Malian authorities. They were sent back by plane to Northern Mali, where a rebel insurgency has been ongoing since 2012. 

Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadi terrorism, said that the negotiations between the Malian government and the insurgent armed groups began in April, after Cissé was kidnapped in the middle of his presidential campaign. Despite the instauration of a new government after the Malian military coup in early August, the negotiations were conducted by the same emissary in place. Nasr adds that Pétronin “benefited from this dynamic.”

French authorities claimed to be “very relieved” and extended their recognition to Malian authorities for organizing the liberation of Sophie Pétronin. Without giving more details on the circumstances leading to her release, President Macron reiterated France’s determination to support Malian forces in their fight against terrorism in the Sahel. The release of the hostages can be seen as a political win for the new Malian government, reviving domestic support as well as international approval by key strategic allies such as France. 

Since 2012, the upsurge of jihadists and independent rebels has sparked intercommunal tensions and engendered spiraling violence in northern Mali. Despite active international presence, the conflict has caused thousands of civilian and military deaths and has spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. The international Sahel coalition, mainly composed of the regional G5 Sahel forces and the France-led operation Barkhane, has focused counterinsurgency efforts against ISIS. 

In this context, the negotiations that led to the release of the hostages have raised concerns about the implications for the future of the region with the return of more than 100 Islamist fighters. This is what has been implied by regional analysts in Burkina Faso, such as Raogo Antoine Sawadogo, ex- Burkina Faso security minister, who has deplored the “vicious circle” of using exchange as a strategy of conflict resolution. Negotiating with terrorists often implies a trade-off between immediate political benefits and long-term security goals. This is why, until last February, the Malian authorities had always refused to negotiate with terrorists. A diplomatic resolution to the conflict was seen as requiring an unrealistic compromise in light of the radical nature of terrorist demands. 

However, in a context where the state is unable to defeat the jihadists by force, this strategic approach can also be seen as a first step to de-escalate the conflict. Indeed, what has been achieved this week shows that, when faced with a military stalemate, speaking with terrorists can help move forward. Furthermore, ways to alleviate the negative long-term threats brought about by this new strategy of negotiation can be found. For instance, by opening the talks to other concerned parties such as civilians or religious leaders, the Malian authorities could exploit an opportunity to peacefully voice Malian civilians’ grievances, including those of jihadist sympathizers. Using religious leaders as mediators within local communities could be a way to engage these negotiations. In a situation where violence is spiraling, negotiating with terrorists can open up new dialogue channels available to the larger population as well. This can create alternative ways to address long-standing socio-economic and political grievances of the marginalized northern population.

Maelys Chanut