The Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) released a 16-minute video on Saturday, July 1, showing six of the seven hostages currently known to be held in the Sahel region by the militant group. The release came shortly before a regional security summit in Mali held on July 2, attended by French President Emmanuel Macron. The six hostages include foreign nationals from South Africa, France, Colombia, Australia, Romania, and Switzerland. The whereabouts of the seventh hostage - an American humanitarian worker abducted by unknown assailants in Abalak, northern Niger, in October 2016 - is currently unknown.
Four of the hostages - a South African tourist, a Colombian nun, a French humanitarian worker, and a Swiss missionary - were abducted in Mali. The remaining two - a Romanian mining worker and an Australian doctor - were abducted in Burkina Faso.
A Swedish national, held hostage by Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali since 2011, was released on June 26. His release raised hopes that additional foreign hostages would be set free.
Foreign nationals face a particularly high risk of kidnapping, especially from jihadist groups, throughout the region, although kidnappings have decreased since the French military deployed troops to the region in 2014 (Barkhane Forces). Though the risk of kidnapping is significantly higher on the bordering regions with Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, capital cities and other urban areas (e.g. Niamey, Ouagadougou, Bamako) are not exempted from this threat.
Numerous armed groups are present throughout the region, including AQIM, Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al-Mourabitoun. Since March 2017, various attacks have been claimed in Mali by militants from the JNIM, a recently formed Al-Qa'ida ally, that formed out of a merger between Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. The group is led by Iyad Ag Ghali, the veteran leader of Ansar Dine.
The security environment in the Sahel region remains complex. Due to the underlying terrorist and kidnapping threats prevailing in the region, all those present in the area are advised to remain discreet regarding personal details, particularly information concerning nationality, employment, family, etc. Individuals are also advised to avoid public events and places frequented by Westerners, to remain vigilant at all times (especially in local markets, now used by terrorists as recruitment grounds), and to report any suspicious objects or behavior to the authorities. Professional security advice and support should be sought prior to travel.