• Four media outlets published on Tuesday an investigation into the kidnapping of journalist Olivier Dubois in Mali in March 2021.
  • The investigation reveals that the French soldiers of the Barkhane force present in Mali at that time were aware of the risks of abduction of the French journalist and that they would not have tried to avoid it.
  • 20 Minutes takes stock of this compromising affair for the French army while Arnaud Froger, head of the investigation bureau at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) believes that there was not "just a lack of lucidity" and evokes a "failure".

Interviewing an al-Qaeda emir in the Sahel was a high-risk project. But that did not prevent Olivier Dubois from continuing the company in the hope of being able to produce an exceptional journalistic work. His audacity will cost him dearly: for nearly two years, he remained hostage of the jihadist group. However, according to the revelations of a joint investigation by several media outlets, published on Tuesday, the French army and intelligence services apparently did not engage in any manoeuvre to prevent this hostage-taking while they were aware of the risks. According to Arnaud Froger, head of the investigation bureau at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), "this is not just a lack of lucidity, it is a failure." Explanations.

Where does this survey come from?

It was a joint work of Le Monde, Libération, Radio France Internationale (RFI) and TV5Monde that led to these compromising revelations for the French army. For a year and a half, these three media outlets investigated the kidnapping of Olivier Dubois on April 8 in 2021, then a freelancer for various newsrooms (Libération, Le Point Afrique and Jeune Afrique). The journalist, who moved to Bamako in 2015, decided to try to interview Abdallah Ag Albakaye, a jihadist leader affiliated with the GSIM (Al-Qaeda in the Sahel branch also known as JNIM) in Mali. A subject also refused by Libération in the face of the obvious risks of such a project. The four media at the origin of this long investigation, which "risks causing a stir at the ministry," says Isabelle Dufour, director of strategic studies at Eurocrise, decided to wait for the release of Olivier Dubois on March 20 to finally publish it.

What exactly does this river investigation reveal?

Fuelled by French and Malian court documents, the detailed investigation by the four newsrooms sheds light on how the soldiers of Operation Barkhane, who are fighting jihadist groups in the region, used the interview project of the French journalist without intervening and preventing his abduction.

The facts date back to the end of 2020. At that time, in order to contact and organize the meeting with Emir Abdallah Ag Albakaye, Olivier Dubois asked his fixer, called Kader to protect his identity, to help him. Except that the French journalist does not know that this Kader informs, in parallel, the French military of all the details of this meeting. The French military hopes, indeed, to be able to use it to locate the emir, or even capture him, according to a French lieutenant quoted in Le Monde. For months, they have access to all the information, via the fixer, from the progress of negotiations to making appointments. Despite the risks of kidnapping incurred by the journalist, identified by the services of the army, Olivier Dubois does not receive an alert encouraging him to abandon his project. Only a "red letter" - to formally advise against it - had been sent to the journalist the day before his abduction to dissuade him from making this trip.

Faced with the dangerousness and concerns about the real motives of the emir, the French military even decided to abandon their operation at the last minute. When Kader, who was supposed to be the translator for the interview, and especially to keep the French forces informed, did not get into the pick-up truck that came to pick up Olivier Dubois, the French soldiers did not move. While the military has the GPS coordinates of the place where Ag Albakaye's men are supposed to find the journalist, after 45 minutes, the time allotted for the interview, Barkhane did not react. Olivier Dubois will finally be kidnapped on April 8, 2021 in Gao.

Can French forces be held accountable?

Charged with investigating this case internally, the General Inspectorate of the Armed Forces (IGA) concluded at the end of 2021 that there had been "no personal misconduct within the Barkhane force" but that "the sensitivity of the subject was not taken into account at a sufficient level to conduct (...) a deterrent action against the journalist". Contacted by 20 Minutes, the Ministry of the Armed Forces, did not wish to comment and invokes the judicial investigation in progress.

According to Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's investigation desk, the case shows "several shortcomings, a lot of negligence and irresponsibility" on the part of Barkhane's forces and military intelligence. He then cites the use of a journalist "as a Trojan horse without his knowledge", the fact of not "not warning him of the concrete risks he runs", "not warning him that he is being followed by the authorities" and "endangering the safety of a French national", and denounces "a whole series of flaws of the French army." Indeed, "if it is proven, the fact of not informing Olivier Dubois of the risks of kidnapping it would be a fault on their part, if it happened like that, they took a very limited risk," abounds Isabelle Dufour.

Are these risks commonplace?

In addition, Arnaud Froger questions "the meaning that we put in intelligence in France." Was the neutralization of this emir, lieutenant of the armed Islamist organization, an intermediary in the hierarchy, worth endangering the life of a French national and journalist?

"It raises questions about a more global policy, about the means, the risks taken and for what result?" he insists, believing that there were "probably other ways to reach the target." Especially since the French military have good human intelligence on the spot, according to Isabelle Dufour. Is it common for the military to use journalists in this way for the needs of an operation? The official version of the authorities is that it is not, "but obviously it does," laments Arnaud Froger.

  • World
  • Mali
  • Sahel
  • Army