Ransoming Citizens, Europe Becomes Al Qaeda’s Patron
By RUKMINI CALLIMACHIJULY 29, 2014
BAMAKO, Mali — The cash filled three suitcases: 5 million euros.
The German official charged with delivering this cargo arrived here aboard a nearly empty military plane and was whisked away to a secret meeting with the president of Mali, who had offered Europe a face-saving solution to a vexing problem.
Officially, Germany had budgeted the money as humanitarian aid for the poor, landlocked nation of Mali.
In truth, all sides understood that the cash was bound for an obscure group of Islamic extremists who were holding 32 European hostages, according to six senior diplomats directly involved in the exchange.
The suitcases were loaded onto pickup trucks and driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara, where the bearded fighters, who would soon become an official arm of Al Qaeda, counted the money on a blanket thrown on the sand. The 2003 episode was a learning experience for both sides. Eleven years later, the handoff in Bamako has become a well-rehearsed ritual, one of dozens of such transactions repeated all over the world.
Harald Ickler in June near his home in Miesbach, Bavaria. As a captive in the desert, he thought often of his lush, green Germany. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times