PARIS, France — In the past few weeks, credible intelligence on planned terror attacks has pushed French authorities to warn the public of an imminent threat. Then last week, Osama bin Laden delivered a taped message exclusively devoted to France. Other than the United States, France is the only country bin Laden has singled out as a unique target. So why is France, much derided in America for its contributions to global security, in Al Qaeda’s sights?
Historically, Al Qaeda’s leadership has mentioned France only in passing. The reasons for any animosity directed at France include the presence of French troops in Afghanistan, the passing of a law in 2004 banning religious signs (including Islamic headscarves) in French public schools, and France’s historic involvement in Muslim North Africa. Also on a personal note for bin Laden, according to terrorism expert Roland Jacquard, French special forces were close to killing him on two occasions in recent years, further needling the Al Qaeda leader.
In his latest message, bin Laden evoked those points of contention with France, including the just-passed law banning face-covering Islamic veils. The difference from past messages is his singling out of French people and troops: “If you unjustly thought that it is your right to prevent free Muslim women from wearing the face veil, is it not our right to expel your invading men and cut their necks?” Bin Laden continued, “It is a simple and clear equation: As you kill, you will be killed. As you capture, you will be captured. And as you threaten our security, your security will be threatened.”
For the first time publicly, bin Laden endorsed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and claimed credit for the recent kidnapping in Niger by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb of a group of five French nationals. He called it a response to France’s “oppression of Muslims.”
France has acknowledged that its biggest threat comes from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the latest rapprochement with Al Qaeda central can only embolden the Maghrebi branch. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wants to topple the current government in Algeria, which is supported by France. And pulling off an attack on French soil would boost Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s credibility with the rest of the terrorist network.
For the time being, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has not succeeded in launching an attack, but it has sleeper cells all over Europe as well as logistical support, according to French intelligence officials. After a failed French-Mauritanian operation to liberate a French hostage held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in July 2010, in which six Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members were killed, Abdelmalek Droukdel, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s leader, announced that the hostage, Michel Germaneau, had been executed. Droukdel called for revenge and the unleashing of a major war against France.
So far, French security services have foiled planned attacks. Last year, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s number three was arrested on his way to France and accused of coordinating multiple suicide attacks. As early as 1994, the ancestor of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Algerian GIA, hijacked a plane that they wanted to crash into the Eiffel Tower — French Special Forces stormed the plane and saved the day.
And they are still trying today: In recent weeks, acting on credible Algerian intelligence, French authorities have evacuated the Eiffel Tower twice. While current intelligence points at Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, homegrown radicalized terrorists also pose a threat. They could answer bin Laden’s call to jihad without falling into intelligence snares. And that is the real nightmare scenario for French security services.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe.