The Forgotten Three: The Fate of AQIM Timbuktu Hostages and Their Captor Belkacem Zouadi

One Thousand Days with AQIM

The video execution of American journalist James Foley by ISIS jihadists on 19 August 2014 shocked the international community and generated instant global attention. Yet in Holland, Sweden and South Africa three names of other hostages remained all but expunged from the national media. Two days after Foley’s death was made public marked 1000 days in captivity for desert tourists Sjaak Rijke, Stephen McGowan and Johan Gustafson, kidnapped from Timbuktu by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on 25 November 2011.

This macabre anniversary passed almost unmarked by the media whilst national governments have pursued a strategy of “silent diplomacy,” resulting in no apparent progress for 1000+ days. Relatives and close friends of the hostages likewise maintained strict silence in accordance with government advice. Yet, information surrounding the kidnappers and their fate can be found amongst the myriad of online extremist websites and new media platforms. GCTAT (Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism) has drawn together these various pieces - which have been checked against separate reliable sources.


Snapshot from first image of the Timbuktu three, apart from Belkacem Zoudi (unknown to most at the time of its release), the audio-video signature clearly shows the link with Yahiya Abu al-Hammam’s unit, the al-Furqan Brigade.

Al Furqan, Yahiya Abu al-Hammam and the Timbuktu Three, an audio video signature on its own

Soon after the abduction, in December 2011 the first images of the hostages were published by AQIM’s al-Andalus media group confirming the kidnappings. A classical AQIM kidnap posture was employed: kneeling and shocked hostages framed by heavily armed masked fighters. Yet there was one exception. Uncharacteristically, one bearded face remained uncovered, a deliberate taunt to the authorities and additional proof of precisely who held the victims. These elements were assessed to be a deliberate pointer to negotiators by the kidnap group of which aQIM Katibat was responsible for the abduction: the al-Furqan Brigade of Djamal Okacha aka Yahiya Abu al-Hammam. 

Uncovered Faces Equals Media Attention 

At that time, no mainstream media outlets named this unmasked figure. Previously, Abu Zeid had likewise openly appeared with the French Areva hostages, flaunting his public notoriety, and his appearances provoked wide coverage in the Francophone media. But this time, no one publicly identified the uncovered fighter in the news.

However, for the dedicated special services personnel across the Sahel and Maghreb, this uncovered face was instantly recognizable, a face that could be matched against several arrest photographs from 2007 and before. Beyond Africa, the appearance of this face also began triggering alerts amongst the special services of France and Canada.

In the 1000 days since the kidnapping, this face has thus far not re-appeared again in any released hostage material. Two hostage videos and one al-Jazeera news interview have been the only contact with the outside world for the victims. Throughout, the only visible faces have been those of the hostages, each with ever lengthening beards and increasingly drawn complexions.

One of the few journalists who recognized this secret face was Serge Daniel. It was this photoshopped image that adorned the cover of his 2012 book, AQMI - L'industrie de l'enlèvement. Daniel would later remark that few observers outside of the services knew who this person was, despite his distinct background.

A Twitter Eulogy

For over two years this nameless yet significant face disappeared from public view only to re-emerge in the underreported arena of jihadist twitter feeds. On 29 April 2014, the twitter account @sahra_emirat tweeted a two part martyrdom statement which would have gone unnoticed for many had it not included the posturing, unmasked AQIM figure from 2011.

The leader Abu Osama al-Jazairi is dead. The mountains of Afghanistan, Transatlantic and Azawad desert are witnesses to who he was. He participated in the most important battles in Niger, Mali and Mauritania, was the Emir of a secret battle (Tnadma), which killed a group of young Libyans.


Separate twitter accounts later tweeted similar eulogies to the now identified Abu Osama al-Jazairi likewise referenced the battle at Tnadma. 

The Life of Abu Osama al-Jazairi (aka Belkacem Zaoudi)

GCTAT research and analysis uncovered information from a variety of social media and obscure sites, enabling the biography of Abu Osama to be assembled. 

His real name was Belkacem Zaoudi. Born in 1972, he was an Algerian from the district of Berrouaghia, in the province of Medea. After schooling, he left for Afghanistan in 1992 and was trained there by the martyred Libyan leader Ibn el-Cheikh al-Libi. He participated in fighting during the overthrow of the Afghan Communist regime.


When the fighting in Afghanistan descended into civil war, Zaoudi left to fight jihad in Bosnia but was prevented from participating when the Dayton peace agreement was signed during his travel. Zaoudi travelled instead via Yemen to Sudan when Osama Bin Laden was located there. When Bin Laden and his followers were forced out, Zaoudi again travelled further across Europe before he settled in Britain. There, he enjoyed a good relationship with infamous, radical figures such as Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Abu Waleed al-Ansari al-Gazi, and remained in the UK until the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

Zaoudi travelled for a second time to Afghanistan in 1997, where the relationship between him and Sheikh Abu strengthen, perhaps through marriage to one of Abu Waleed's daughters.

He remained in Afghanistan, undertaking military training until 2000 when he headed to Algeria to join the mujahedeen in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). As a consequence of his long sojourns in Afghanistan, Zaoudi earned the nickname of Abu Osama the Algerian-Afghan. He was one of the first mujahidin to enter the desert of Mali, and he continued to move between Mali and Algeria until he settled in the Malian desert.

According to journalist Serge Daniel, Zaoudi was "on a reconnaissance mission in North Africa to verify that the "direction" of the GSPC sufficiently differed with that of the GIA, and sent a letter not directly to bin Laden, but instead to Aiman al-Zawahiri. In the letter, Zouadi clearly said the GSPC did not have the bloody reputation of the GIA, who did not hesitate to kill babies, and pregnant women."

Zaoudi later became a member of the Shura Council of the AQIM Sahara region, was a member of the military organization and was the best al-Qaeda trainers in the region. Since he joined the Jihad, he trained scores of Mujahideen in Afghanistan and North Africa until his death. 

The Exchange

On 28 December 2007 at Douentza, 200 km south of Timbuktu, Mali's security services arrested Zaoudi, as a close associate of Yahia Djouadi, the regional AQIM emir at the time. Zaoudi remained in captivity until he was released in a prisoner exchange between AQIM and the government of Bamako at the beginning of 2009. Jihadist accounts referring to his imprisonment state that he memorized the Koran by heart during this time and that he often acted as "Emir of the establishment".

Together with three other prominent jihadists, Zaoudi was released in early 2009 as a prelude to a prisoner exchange deal involving Canadian, German and Swiss hostages and which also involved the payment of ransoms to AQIM by these states.
Jihadist recollections describe him as brave, intrepid, modest, reading the Koran deep into the nights, helpful, patient, military instructor of the highest class, expert in all weapons and familiar with explosives.

Information obtained by GCTAT portrays another side to Zaoudi. Local Malians in Timbuktu recall an Abu Osama in command of a location believed to have been holding Western hostages in 2012. Those in neighboring buildings recall him as very threatening and intimidating. When livestock wandered into the compound locals would instead send children to collect them out of fear of confronting Abu Osama.


The Secret Battle

The end for Zaoudi came in some time in early 2013 at the obscure location of Tinadema in northern Mali. Zaoudi was commanding a group of around twenty fighters comprised mostly of Benghazi Libyans, Malians and one fighter from Niger. The “forgotten three” hostages were in his care.

Jihadist accounts state that the group was detected by French forces due to “betrayal by a collaborator”. As has at times been the case, indigenous people have provided the French with intelligence as to the presence of jihadists in the area.

The French response was “by land and air” but the fastest of the fighters were able to escape with the hostages whilst the remainder led by Zaoudi awaited the French attack. At the end of the night the French clashed with Zaoudi’s group killing six. The following morning French air power returned, killing a further twelve, including Zaoudi.

In addition to their martyred commander, social media profiles gathered by GCTAT pay homage to the memory of some of Zaoudi’s fighters killed at Tinadema. Facebook and Twitter accounts contain the young, clean-shaven faces of Benghazi teenagers who found their way into the Katiba’s of AQIM in Mali and eventual martyrdom with Zaoudi in the remote north. To date, GCTAT has failed to find any public statement from the Serval mission on these events.

Amongst the few witnesses to the events at Tinadema were the hostages themselves. Their continued well-being and captivity was proven in September 2013 in a AQIM video release. Since then no further sign has emerged and GCTAT has no information on their current status. But whilst these hostages represent the last trump cards of AQIM, “silent diplomacy” has its limitations.

The Timbuktu Three: Video Analysis

The first video of the Timbuktu three appeared in July 2012 through a short video uploaded by Sahara Media company, favoured by aQIM for propaganda releases. The Dutch hostage Sjaak Rijke, was filmed alone inside a building and presents a document stating that the recording was made on 29 January 2012. No aQIM fighters are visible and a generic black flag with Prophet’s seal, associated with differing jihadist organisations, is used as background.

A separate clip shows the Swedish and South African-British hostages (Johan Gustafson and Stephen McGowan) together at a different location showing documents indicating a date of 28 January 2012. This image shows the classic aQIM signatures of armed fighters in the rear, the specific aQIM flag and various styles of uniform. Both victims are sat or kneeling but seem unbound. Both seem to wear black scarves around their necks, suggestive of a blindfold.

The hostages appear at this point to have been held separately even during filming based upon the apparently different dates and locations. A specific feature of this group’s output is the different flags seen in the video. Another unique element is the inclusion of letters purportedly from various national governments, opened by the hostages. Interestingly, all hostages speak their native languages.

Uniquely, the Timbuktu three were the subjects of a television interview conducted broadcast by al-Jazeera on 21 August 2012. The interview was held at an unidentified location in the northern Malian desert, seemingly a temporary site established for the interview. McGowan explains to al-Jazeera that he was on a motorbike tour to South Africa and how much he misses his family. Rijke tells the film crew “my family we don’t have money…I will just ask the government again, please help me”

The hostages are guarded by a group of around fifteen jihadists. Others may have been present but were not filmed. There is a distinct division of roles of these fighters. Some act as perimeter security for the interview, whilst others guard the hostages. Those seen arriving with the hostages and guarding them during the interview are distinct in their selection of dress. Almost all wear black clothing including dark scarves concealing their faces. This style of dress has not previously been encountered in aQIM visual signatures. Those guarding the desert camp retain the typical mix of combat uniforms and khaki clothing seen elsewhere.

This differentiation may indicate different jihadi groupings: the kidnappers wearing black bring the hostages to be filmed. The security group, perhaps from a separate grouping, providing assistance by acting as guards for the occasion. The use of black uniforms may have also have been a propaganda effect to intimidate and magnify the impact of the message.

Examination of the video shows that the victims have kept some personal effects. Stephen McGowan wears a ring. Johan Gustafson wears glasses. None of the three are visibly wearing watches. The immediate removal of watches is standard procedure, but other aQIM kidnap victims have been robbed at all valuables when taken.

The relative good condition of the hostages, visibly fresh clothing and haircuts is noteworthy. It suggests that the group concerned with its representation, seeking to depict itself as treating hostages honourably and offering good care.

The black AQIM flag is a constantly re-occurring feature in almost all output connected to the Timbuktu hostages. This is not a typical feature seen in the signature of Abu Zeid kidnap operations. No type of flag has been displayed in his related hostage output. Interestingly enough, this kind of flag can be seen in the background of one of the very few public pictures of Amir Yahiya Abu al-Hammam.

The most recent video of the three hostages was filmed on 23 June 2013 and released via the Mauritanian ANI media agency in September 2013. The three hostages are filmed individually against different carpet backdrops with neither AQIM fighters nor flags visible. Each address their governments and families in their native languages to urge action for their release. The three are clearly filmed outdoors as strong winds can be heard on the microphone and in the video of Sjaak Rijkea voice giving directions can be heard.

All three appear express the strain of captivity but state that they are in good health. Nonetheless the lengthy period in captivity in a harsh desert environment, held by a group on the run from French forces is apparent. Gustafsson in particular appears tired. Rijke talks of relatively minor ailments but states that he cannot hold out for much longer.