Sorry for the delay on this article, guys. I was going to walk you through the groups operating in the area. Then I see that my fellow SOFREP writer Derek Gannon did a great job explaining the main groups involved in this article, so I decided it was best to have a rethink and take you down a different route. I have decided to share my thoughts on those who have been taken in kidnappings in this region, and consider who might be holding them. Let’s begin.

Stephen McGown and Johan Gustafsson kidnapped in November 2011 in northern Mali

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Gustafsson and McGown plus two other men, Dutch national Sjaak Rijke and a German man, were believed to be kidnapped by al-Qaeda in November 2011 at a restaurant in Timbuktu, Mali. The German man was killed when he refused to get into the truck. Rijke was rescued by French special forces in April 2015.

That’s the summary in short: Gustafsson and McGown were riding their endurance bikes from the U.K. to South Africa. McGown was due to start a new life in South Africa with his wife, but sadly was kidnapped en route while in Mali. Although the reports said AQIM was responsible, I think those truly responsible for the initial attack belonged to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). AQIM presence, in my eyes, had not stretched far enough into Mali at the time of the attack. It was not until a few months later that AQIM took ground and used the MNLA as a force multiplier. But prior to this, I have no doubt AQIM supplied guns and even training to the MNLA. So to say thank you to their new friends, a local MNLA group kidnapped the foreigners, most likely for money and to score brownie points with their new brothers in arms. (This, of course, is just my theory on this subject.)

Going forward from the attack, AQIM piped up, saying it was responsible for the attack and were holding the men. This was confirmed on several different news channels and local radio stations, and they have since sent out several proof-of-life videos.

If we look at the videos and pictures of the two men, you will see that they are now sporting long beards, while their top lips are shaven down. This points to a group with a closer, more spiritual tie to Islam. You may also notice that the men are wearing local clothing, which makes them harder to notice in public. I do believe they will be moved around. The men seem to be in good health—I mean really good! Five years in captivity and their condition is surprising. This really says a lot for their captures. I have no doubt in my mind that AQIM has Gustafsson and McGown. There is a company, Gift of the Givers, trying to secure their release, and the company has confirmed it is in talks with AQIM about their release. My only fear is that the men have been in captivity for so long, AQIM will want some money back for looking after the men. After all, food, water, and general healthcare out there can’t be cheap.

Romanian Iulian Ghergut kidnapped on April 4th, 2015 in Tambao, Burkina Faso

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Ghergut was kidnapped while working for Pan African Minerals, a subsidiary of Frank Timis Corporation. He was working as a security officer on the Tambao project, a manganese mine close to the Mali border. The attack itself was a bloody one: While out on a patrol, Ghergut was in a vehicle along with a police officer and his driver. When they came under small-arms fire, the police officer and driver were seriously wounded. The attackers made off with the Romanian citizen and headed at breakneck pace toward the Mali border. Now this time, there is more to it than meets the eye. In late February, locals staged a protest outside the mine, accusing it of “not living up to its promises.”

The company had promised locals they would build a road and railway linking the towns of Tambao and Kaya more than 125 miles away. Sadly, this road and railway have not yet come to light. Meanwhile, the government suspended the company’s export permit.

So we can see here that there is some tension in this case. A motive, one might say, not aimed at Ghergut, but at the company. The mine is located less than 200 kilometers from the town of Gao, a region rife with just about every asshole you don’t want to meet. If we take into account the type of commonly used vehicles in the area, the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Toyota Hilux from around 1995 onward, we know the fuel range is about 300 kilometers on a full tank, give or take. That puts the mine more than within range of the groups operating in northern Mali.

If you look at the map above, you can see some of the activity from the groups. Trust me, I could have added a lot more, but hopefully you get an idea of what it’s like down there.

I believe Ghergut was kidnapped by MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa). This group is known for its brutality. Of the kidnapping cases I have reviewed, this has happed twice in the AO of MUJAO. Having said that, the group Al-Murabitoun have claimed responsibility. I personally think that this should be taken with a grain of salt, as each group is still claiming attacks under their own banner, leading me to believe that they are very undecided on whether or not they want to fall under that banner. Also of note: The claim of responsibility was a recording sent to Al Akhbar, a Mauritanian news agency. This station is renowned for carrying out jihadis’ statements.

“The Romanian government bears all responsibility for the fate of the hostage if it is slow to take the opportunity given to free its citizen,” the recording claimed in an apparent reference to Bucharest’s unwillingness to engage in negotiations. The message ended with a reiterated pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. This follows a similar pledge of allegiance from Sahraoui, which was immediately denied by the group’s notorious Algerian commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. This disagreement appears to be the latest episode in a power struggle at the heart of Al-Mourabitoun.

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They also said this would be the last video of the Romanian, and if we look at his condition, he looks worse for wear. He does, however, appear to be sporting the same type of beard as the other two captives—long bottom, short on the upper lip. But there is a big difference here: Gustafsson and McGown look to  be in better health, and they are better groomed. This might not sound like much, but those with closer ties to Islam say that beards should be groomed, the top lip kept short. Ghergut looks rough, and his captors have said this will be the last video of him, dated 21/11/2016. The captors of Gustafsson and McGown have been more than happy to provide video proof of their captives’ survival. Ghergut’s captors are also saying they pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State, something the captors of Gustafsson and McGown have never done in the five years they have had them.

My conclusion so far: The group I believe to be holding him is MUJAO. They might be using the banner of Al-Murabitoun, but the group’s leader, Mokhatar Belmokhtar, has said multiple times they will not pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State. There is a divide in Al-Murabitoun. One side of the group follows this strict old-school way of Islam, and the other wants to go full Islamic State!

Dr. Ken and Jocelyn Elliot kidnapped on the 15th of January, 2016 in Djibo, Burkina Faso

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Dr. Ken Elliot, a surgeon, and his wife Jocelyn, both aged in their ’80s, have worked in Djibo, near Burkina Faso’s border with Mali, for more than 40 years. It is believed they were kidnapped by jihadis from the al-Qaida-linked Emirate of the Sahara. They belong to AQIM. Some say they are a different branch, but I believe them to be AQIM. This case is very different from the rest, as there is a woman involved. Jocelyn was taken with her husband across the border into Mali like the rest, but later she was released.

US aid worker kidnapped in Niger, taken to Mali

Read Next: US aid worker kidnapped in Niger, taken to Mali

“A spokesman for Malian militant group Ansar Dine, Hamadou Ag Khallini, said in a brief phone message the couple were being held by jihadists from Emirate of the Sahara.”

Now this group, AQIM, has a very strict law not to involve women in war, and so she was released. Jocelyn Elliot gave no further details on her time in captivity, but said her husband was alive and well. AQIM did send a message out to the public, saying last week that it had kidnapped the couple and would release the woman unconditionally due to public pressure and guidance from al-Qaeda leadership stating they must not involve women in war. What’s strange here is that she was handed over in Niger. It was the Niger president who presented Elliot at a news conference. Dr. Ken Elliot will undoubtedly prove to be of much use to AQIM due to his skill set, patching up wounded fighters and looking after the commanders’ health. Such skill will prove more useful to them than any amount of money.

There are two groups that spring to mind when I look at this case: AQIM and MUJAO/Al-Murabitoun. My reason for including MUJAO as the potential captor is the release of Elliot in Niger—that’s MUJAO’s AO. I think it’s possible that the couple was in the possession of the group Mokhatar Belmokhtar at some point. They also follow a strict form of Islam and would not involve women in war.

AQIM has no place in Niger, and MUJAO/Al-Murabitoun have a stronghold in the town of Menaka, located just 160 kilometers from the Niger border. I personally think AQIM has Dr. Ken Elliot, but I do think they use or have used MUJAO/Al-Murabitoun to smuggle them around. It would not surprise me if the latter did not conduct the kidnapping; Djibo was well within the reach of this group.

Jeff Woods, kidnapped on 14th October, 2016 in the town of Abalak Niger

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Jeff woods was a pioneering missionary in Niger. He worked and lived in Niger for over 25 years and worked for the company JEMED, a branch of U.S.-based Youth with a Mission (YWAM). He was well known in the area and had a love and passion for the Tuareg community, often dressing in local clothing.

Armed men raided Jeff’s house at around 21:00. This was a bloody kidnapping. The mayor of the town said, “They came on motorbikes first, killing the guards, then a 4×4 pulled up and forced Jeff to strip down and climb on board.” The 4×4 was last seen heading toward the border with Mali. According to Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, “A group of armed men believed to be from MUJAO burst in to Jeff’s house, killing two guards—one of them a member of the national guard stationed there—and drove toward eastern Mali.”

This was a bloody kidnapping just like that of Ghergut, and I believe that this is the work of MUJAO. Given the killing of both of the victim’s guards, I believe the group will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. Now, I also believe this to be the work of MUJAO since no one has yet come forward to claim responsibility for the attacks. This leads me to believe that whoever committed this attack was not fully aware of the consequences of kidnapping an American. AQIM doesn’t need any more beef right now; they are dealing with the French already. The same goes for Ansar Dine.

This leaves us with MUJAO/Al-Murabitoun. Like I said, it’s split right now in my opinion. But I will say this: I think the group responsible is MUJAO, and it’s the Sahraoui crew that have committed this attack. They are trying to be the big boys in the area and do what the other groups won’t do. They want to please the Islamic State and prove they are the top dog in the area. That’s why, when they kidnap, it’s a bloody one. They are trying to prove they are brutal enough to join the ranks of ISIS.

No group will come forward to claim Jeff Woods’ kidnapping unless they are ready, and have the backing of ISIS. I do feel sorry for Jeff, as his captors won’t be so caring like that of AQIM. (I never thought I would say that in a sentence.) I feel Jeff may end up with Ghergut in a video. This is my gut talking here.

All in all, guys, I have looked at this for a while, and I see two different groups holding these people: AQIM and MUJAO. It’s simple: One will take care of them and the other will not. Gustafsson, McGown, and Dr. Elliot are in the hands of AQIM. Ghergut and Jeff Woods are being held by MUJAO/Al-Murabitoun, and that’s the Sahraoui side, not Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s side.

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