Experts doubt Al-Qaeda’s tourist abduction claims

Experts doubt Al-Qaeda’s tourist abduction claims

Middle East Online, 13 March 2008

Terrorism experts and analysts assume two Austrian tourists got lost in Sahara, ended up in Algeria before abduction.

WASHINGTON & VIENNA – Terrorism experts and media analysts have raised a number of questions regarding the version of events given by an Al-Qaeda spokesman regarding the reported kidnapping of two Austrian tourists.

US terrorism think-tank “Stratfor Strategic Forecasting,” cites the possibility that the Australian couple “became lost and ended up in the Algerian side of the border”. There, it believes, “any number of militant groups would have noticed two Austrians driving an RV around the country.”

This interpretation contradicts the version of events given by Saleh Abu Mohammed, the self-declared spokesman for “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”, who said in an audio statement broadcast on Al-Jazeera television channel that “a squadron of heroic Mujahideen were able to penetrate deep into the territory of the Tunisian state and succeeded into kidnapping the two Austrian tourists.”

Austrian media have identified the missing couple as Wolfgang Ebner, 51, and Andrea Kloiber, 44.

According to Tunisian authorities, the two Austrian tourists entered Tunisia on February 10, “for a Saharan excursion”. Then it seems, they got lost in the desert. Ebner placed a phone call to his son on February 18 and was supposed to call again a week later, but never did. The Austrian ministry of foreign affairs said the couple, driving in an RV with Austrian license plates, might have been headed west towards the Algerian border.

Tunisian officials have confirmed the hypothesis that the two tourists went “beyond Tunisian borders.” and once alerted by Austrian officials, they added “Tunisia police and army have launched intensive air and land search operations, but could not find the missing Austrians.”

French and German media sources find it also much more plausible that the abduction took place on Algerian territory. French newspaper ‘France Soir’ said, for instance, that the two tourists were “kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb in Algeria, near the border with Tunisia.”

Experts see in the claims of Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch as an all too-obvious eager to strike a “media coup” and to show “versatility” in their modus operandi (in demonstrating that not only can they undertake suicide bombings but they can also abduct western tourists).

“It is probably only coincidence that had the Austrian tourists fall in the hands of this terrorist group,” believes German expert Udo Steinbach.

Austrian authorities are also skeptical about Al-Qaeda’s claims. “Neither the evidence of the kidnapping nor the authenticity of the recording has been established,” says Martin Gartner, spokesman for the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.