The French know only too well how well armed and well funded the Islamists they’re fighting in northern Mali are. That’s because they provided a lot of the money.

“The starting point was in 2003 when foreign hostages were taken in Algeria and held in Mali,” explained former Malian Foreign Minister Tiebile Drame, when I met him last year. “Our government was asked by western governments to help to release them.”

Members of the Malian government acted as go-betweens to negotiate ransoms, a system which not only filled the coffers of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) but also corrupted the Malian officials involved.

“Most western governments accepted to deal with them in one way or another,” said Mr Drame. “They knew al-Qaeda was the main hostage taker.”

The one exception was the British, with the result that in 2009 a British hostage, Edwin Dyer, who had been seized at a cultural festival near Timbuktu, was executed. The others taken with him – one German and two Swiss – were released as were several French and Italians.

This morning’s commando raid in Somalia in which the French intelligence agent known as Denis Allex is believed to have been killed, reduced to eight the number of French hostages held by Islamist groups in Africa.

Four French citizens working for the mining company Areva, kidnapped in September 2010 from the town of Arlit in Niger, as well as two other French hostages captured in the Sahel region, are believed to be in northern Mali. They are in extreme danger now. The leaders of AQIM have repeatedly threatened to kill them if France were to mount an operation in northern Mali, which they call by its Tuareg name, Azawad.

This insane initiative will provoke not only the deaths of the hostages but will sink France in Azawad and will bring it and its people more tragedies and catastrophes“,  said a statement put out by the kidnappers two weeks ago.

In a video posted recently on Sahara Media Abdul Hamid Abu Zeid, the leader of AQIM, blames the French government for the failure of negotiations to release the hostages. Another video dated 26 November shows Jules Berto Rodriguez Lal, who was kidnapped a week earlier after crossing from Mauritania into Mali in which he asks the French government to meet AQIM’s demands.

Today, the families of the hostages are reported to be gathered round their TV sets, desperate for every morsel of information from Mali. For them the failure of today’s rescue attempt in Somalia combined with continued French air strikes on Islamists in Mali is the worst news possible.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter