French soldiers from the anti-terrorist Operation Barkhane were informed of a journalist’s plan to interview a jihadist leader and tried to use him to locate the chief, a joint investigation by French media reveals. Out of security concerns, this information was withheld while French journalist Olivier Dubois was still a host of Al-Qaeda. Once Dubois was freed on March 20 after 711 days in captivity, The world, Release, Radio France Internationale (RFI) and TV5Monde decided to reveal the fruits of their year-and-a-half-long joint investigation into his abduction. At first, the military tried to use the reporter to locate the Al-Qaeda chief. Then, judging the meeting to be too risky, they gave up on their operation at the last minute. But they did not deploy the appropriate means to prevent the kidnapping of Dubois during the meeting in Gao, in the northeast of Mali, in the spring of 2021.
On April 8, 2021, Dubois, a freelancer for Release, Africa Point and Young Africa who moved to Bamako in 2015, traveled to Gao to interview Abdallah Ag Albakaye, a senior figure in the Al-Qaeda-linked organization Nusrat ul-Islam. The 48-year-old reporter believed he had planned this interview with the greatest discretion. But he had in fact been followed for months by the French army, as confirmed by some 180 pages of French and Malian judicial documents that The world has been able to consult.
To prepare his investigation, Dubois worked with a fixer, a young Tuareg whom we will call Kader to protect his anonymity. For several years, Kader facilitated contacts between the journalist and various figures in the north of Mali, in particular some from Nusrat al-Islam, with whom he was close. Dubois knew that Kader has already collaborated in the past with Barkhane but believed he could trust him. At the end of 2020, he asked him to pass on his interview proposal to Ag Albakaye.
What the reporter did not know was that his fixer would keep the French military informed until the end of the details of the planned meeting with the jihadist leader. On the day of the kidnapping, in an audio recording that The world was able to listen to, a French lieutenant can be heard distinctly asking Kader about “the name of the street where they asked [him] to drop off Olivier Dubois.”
French military have ‘all the information’
On the day of the kidnapping, the French military had “all the information” about Dubois’s appointment: photographs of the journalist’s clothes, his passport, his plane ticket, his hotel reservation, the car used to get there, GPS coordinates of the place where Ag Albakaye’s men were supposed to find him. The above-mentioned lieutenant confirmed all of this to the agents of the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI, an intelligence agency), who were questioning him as part of the investigation opened by the national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office, on May 5, 2021, into “kidnapping as part of an organized gang and in relation to a terrorist enterprise”.
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