France began holding its breath Feb. 21 amid unconfirmed news that a French family of seven kidnapped two days earlier in northern Cameroon by suspected Islamist extremists had been recovered unharmed. Confusion surrounding the accounts heightened when a French cabinet minister on Thursday confirmed, then backed away from swirling reports that the vacationing family–including four children–had been found in what French media described as an abandoned cabin in northern Nigeria, about 60 miles from the Cameroon border region the abduction occurred. Around the same time, a member of Cameroon’s government denied the reports, before the French Foreign Affairs Ministry also distanced itself from what it termed unsubstantiated “rumor”.
Still, hopes linger in France that officials may yet be able confirm the end to what might turn out to be a bungled or aborted snatch–a yearning born of considerable concern. On Feb. 20, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TV station France 2 the crime was believed to be the work of the notoriously violent Nigerian radical group Boko Haram. Le Drian speculated the kidnapping of the family marked Boko Haram’s its long record of “terror giving way to horror” as the group “begins kidnapping children.” But even if the the happy news of the hostage recovery is confirmed–and allegations of Boko Haram’s involvement reviewed–the kidnapping raises fears of renewed aggression against French and other Western targets as the on-going push against Islamist fighters in Africa continues. During his television appearance Wednesday, Le Drian dismissed suggestions the family’s seizure was directly linked to France’s continuing military intervention against Islamist fighters in Mali—where a new major offensive Feb. 19 led to the deaths 20 militants, as well as that of a second French soldier in the month-long campaign. But despite Le Drian’s assurances the Mali operation wasn’t directly responsible for the abduction, French security officials say the kidnapping is just the kind of aggression they feared from revenge-bent radicals in Africa and beyond.
“The operation in Mali has seriously undermined the means of Islamists in the Sahel to wage violence and terrorism, but it has stoked motivation of