French intelligence agents posing as journalists abducted in Somalia

Hotel Sahafi

Hotel Sahafi

Foreign correspondents in Somalia have joined Reporters Without Borders (RWB) in condemning the alleged journalistic cover of two French intelligence agents, who were kidnapped on Tuesday in Somali capital Mogadishu. RWB director, Jean-Francois Julliard, said that if the allegations that the two French intelligence agents had pretended to be journalists are confirmed, it would be “shocking, because these are official agents on a mission for the French government, who have used the title of journalist as a cover”. In a telling move, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has refused to identify the two abductees, and has rejected calls to reveal the precise branch of the French government that sent them to Somalia. But the Ministry did admit today that the two Frenchmen were in the African country on “an official mission” to advise President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s crumbling Western-backed government in “security matters”. Speaking anonymously to the Agence France Presse news agency, a senior Somali government official revealed that the two abductees arrived in Mogadishu nine days ago in order to train “their counterparts in Somali intelligence agencies”. Interestingly, the Frenchmen are said to have been kidnapped by Somali government troops loyal to the Ministry of the Interior. On Tuesday, about a dozen troops arrived on military vehicles at the Sahafi Hotel International in Mogadishu, disarmed the hotel’s security guards, and then reportedly conducted a “door-to-door” search in the hotel’s foreign guests’ quarters until they found the two Frenchmen, who appear to have been specifically sought after by their abductors. Mohamed Abdi Gandi, the Somali government’s Defense Minister, claimed that the motives behind the abduction were strictly “financial”. But the case became more complex after reports on Wednesday that the abductors handed the two French agents to militants of Somalia’s Hizbul Islam (Islamic Party, also known as Hezb-ul Islam). Although the group is supposedly loyal to the government of Sharif Ahmed, there are unconfirmed reports that it is negotiating handing over the Frenchmen to al-Shabaab (the Party of Youth), a militant youth faction of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Members of the ICU, which ruled Somalia before 2006, went underground late that year after Ethiopia launched a US-aided invasion of Somalia with the aim of curtailing the ICU’s grassroots support and preventing the solidification of the group’s rule in Somalia. Al-Shabaab represents the most militant of the ICU-led underground, and is said to be one of several groups in Somalia with significant al-Qaeda links. The group is  reportedly planning to kill the two French captives. Using false journalistic cover is a routine human intelligence practice by the world’s intelligence agencies. Last February, the Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE) said his agents required expanded investigative powers to combat the increasing presence of foreign spies in the country, many of whom operate under journalistic cover around the EU’s headquarters.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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