Kidnapped Australians Ken and Jocelyn Elliott caught in a grim global struggle

Islamist terror has added a fearsome dimension to the taking of citizens for ransom.

An Australian couple, Ken and Jocelyn Elliott, dedicate their lives to bringing medical services to a remote region of the West African state of Burkina Faso. Starting with nothing, they build a 120-bed hospital that provides the only surgical services to a population of some 2 million. It takes them 40 years.

Then, in their 80s, they are kidnapped – rounded up by armed men, hustled over the Malian border and into the vast reaches of the Sahara desert. Why would anyone do that?

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The answer is money. As Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times revealed in a series of articles published in 2014, Islamist groups operating in north-west Africa have created a lucrative industry over more than a decade, kidnapping the citizens of wealthy countries for ransom.

From their first, fumbling efforts in 2003 to the sophisticated operation they run today, groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have steadily raised their demands. The payment of €5 million in 2003 secured the release of 14 European hostages. In October 2013, four employees of the French nuclear company Areva were released after three years in captivity; according to Callimachi, who quotes among her sources the US Department of Treasury, the ransom was €30 million – or about $12 million a head.

Ken and Jocelyn Elliott. It's still not clear which group is responsible for kidnapping the couple.
Ken and Jocelyn Elliott. It's still not clear which group is responsible for kidnapping the couple. Photo: Facebook

Who is paying? The governments of the countries concerned – among them Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland – routinely deny that they pay ransoms. Callimachi insists that senior European negotiators and professional African middlemen have told her that they do.

Often the payments are disguised as aid donations to the governments of countries such as Mali and Niger. In one case, they were barely disguised. In 2009, two Swiss citizens were released by their AQIM captors in Mali. That November, a minute of the finance committee of the Swiss federal parliament recorded that it had "approved a credit of 3 million francs ... in the case of the Swiss hostages detained in Mali". The document is still online.


In 2009, 3 million Swiss francs were worth about $A4 million, or $2 million a head.

Those Swiss hostages – Werner and Gabriella Greiner – were captured with a 77-year-old German woman, Marianne Petzold, and a British man in his 60s who had lived most of his life in Austria, Edwin Dyer. Petzold was released at the same time as Gabriella Greiner. But the British officials refused to pay a ransom, and made it clear to Dyer's captors that they would not pay.

Dr Ken Elliott in his Dijbo surgery. Ken and Jocelyn Elliott dedicated their lives to bringing medical services to the ...
Dr Ken Elliott in his Dijbo surgery. Ken and Jocelyn Elliott dedicated their lives to bringing medical services to the West African state of Burkina Faso. Photo: Centre Medico-Chirurgicale de Djibo

Not long after, AQIM declared in a media release that "Britain is unresponsive and does not seem to care for its citizens". Accordingly, on May 31, 2009, at 7.30pm local time, it said, it had "executed" Edwin Dyer.

Dyer's brother Hans told Callimachi that "a UK passport is essentially a death certificate".

It's still not clear which group is holding the Elliotts. It could be AQIM, or an allied group that calls itself al-Mourabitoun. It makes little difference. Both groups follow the same modus operandi. We can expect weeks or even months of silence, before an outrageous ransom demand reaches the Australian government or the Elliott family.

At that point Australia will be faced with the same dilemma that has faced so many other countries: to negotiate, and ultimately pay, and in so doing perpetuate an evil industry and finance Islamist terror; or to refuse, and very probably doom two Australians to death.

Interviewed by me for the ABC's Foreign Correspondent last year, Rukmini Callimachi called it "the problem from hell".

At least, if AQIM are the captors, the government will have plenty of time. It will be up against a patient negotiator. One of AQIM's hostages was taken in Timbuktu in 2011: four years later, he is still alive, held somewhere in the so-called "sandbox" deep in the Sahara where Mali, Algeria and Libya meet.

Or the Elliotts' captors could be from an Islamic State faction that is operating in the same region. In that case, there is even less hope and less time.

Numerous European hostages have been ransomed from IS in Syria. It was the citizens of governments that wouldn't pay – notably America and Britain – who were so brutally murdered on camera in late 2014.

But IS discovered that those revolting online executions gave them a propaganda bonus: they produced an increased flow of recruits from Muslim countries, and even from the West. Since then IS has killed more hostages than it has released – Russian, Jordanian, Japanese, even Chinese. And it has done so within months of their seizure.

Whoever the Elliotts' captors are, this much is known: a few North African hostages have been rescued by armed force; none has been  voluntarily released by their captors without payment.

One final, sad thought: if a ransom is paid, the going rate for the two of them, these days, is more than $10 million. That's surely more than all the money the Elliotts have raised and spent on the medical services they've provided to the people of Burkina Faso over the past 43 years.

What a world.

Jonathan Holmes is a Fairfax columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.