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Why does the Islamist threat still hang over France?

In the September 11, 2006 al-Qaida video, serious threats were made towards France when Ayman al-Zawahiri said, “Osama Bin Laden has told me to announce to the Muslims that the GSPC [the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat] has joined al-Qaida. This should be a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness for the apostates [of the regime in Algeria], the treacherous sons of France [former colonial power]”. Zawahiri urges the group to become “a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders”[1], meaning to reach the highest level of pain for Fance and the U.S.

Since this allegiance has been confirmed by the GSPC, it seems necessary to address the reasons to attack France, as put forward by Jihadi groups.

The GSPC was founded in 1998 by a splinter group of Algerian rebels lead by Hassan Hattab, the former Armed Islamic Group (GIA) commander. The group left as a means to become independent from the GIA, which killed about 70,000 civilians during the Algerian insurgency from 1993 to 1998[2]. Although several splinter groups emerged from the GIA, such as the “Guardian of the Salafi Call”, the “Sunni Group for Preaching and Transmission”, and more recently the “Free Salafist Group”, the GSPC is the only Algerian group to think globally, thus considered a “real” terrorist threat[3]. Even if the GSPC never successfully or directly attacked France’s interests, they can learn from what the GIA once did.In 1994, the GIA planned to crash a hijacked plane into the Eiffel tower, but the French anti-terrorist unit managed to thwart their plan. This resulted in several bombing attempts in Paris, with a successful explosion in the Paris Subway in 1995, resulting in the deaths of seven people, and 91 injured.

Today the GSPC, lead by Abou Mossab Abdelouadoud, is considered to be operating with thousands of operatives from Algeria (in the Sahel area) as well as in Europe. In fact, a 2003 plot supported by the GSPC aimed at spreading ricin (the third most toxic substance in the world) in London was disclosed by British authorities, preventing the attack.

The strong ties existing between France and the Arabic countries are undeniable, whether they are historical, economical or political. Additionally, France took a strong stance against the Iraqi invasion in 2003. The French government wanted more time to send IAEA members to further investigate the possibility of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. France made it clear that they preferred to take the diplomatic path with the U.N. rather than invading Iraq. Nevertheless, Jihadi groups have developed a range of arguments aimed at justifying attacks on France’s soil or against French interests abroad.

In Afghanistan, however, France participates in Operation Enduring Freedom, under U.S. command, through French created Hercules Plan (combining navy, air and ground forces to combating terrorism) and the Epidote operation (training of the Afghan army). French troops are also helping NATO operations in the International and Security Assistance Force. Both U.S. and NATO led operations face a re-strengthened Taliban insurgency and increasing critics over foreign occupation.

Domestically, the French Parliament passed a law to forbid the wearing of “conspicuous religious items” such as veils worn by Muslim women in schools. This law was condemned by Muslim fundamentalists who believed politicians should not regulate on religious matters. It is the precisely same idea that makes intolerable the existence of the French Council for Muslim Cult (CFCM), an organization created — through the motivation of the Ministry of Interior — to represent the large Muslim community in France.

France fears a phenomenon led by young French Muslims who are drawn to fight for their ideas[1], which can lead to two different trends:

1) French Muslims going to Jihadi theatres of operations — such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya or the Balkans — could return to France and take action, or take advantage of their military and religious experience to facilitate the indoctrination of new recruits.

2) Muslim fundamentalists can be indoctrinated through the web and/or the Salafi networks settled in France, which have gained power on certain areas of the national territory. Consequently, violent actions could potentially be put into operation without any “training” in a foreign country.

International cooperation in combating terrorism has been virtually ineffective. According to the General Secretary of the OIPC Interpol, this is due to the lack of cooperation and sharing of information[2]. The level of cooperation will eventually become more efficient if there would be a universal definition for “terrorism”. At the very least, there must be universally accepted standards set to determine the causes of terrorism as well as assessing threats and the methods to prevent it from happening[3].

In 1998, a fatwa written by the so-called “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” clearly targeted American interests, as well as their allies. Even if tensions arose in the past, France has remained an undisputable ally to the U.S. In addition, the usual support given by French governments to Arab autocratic political establishments represent another reason that could justify violent actions against France, since the vast majority of Arab political leaders are considered as apostates by Salafis terrorists, as well as by a growing majority of Arab populations[4]. However, what makes France a de facto target, like other western countries, is the fact that France has developed a model of democracy, capitalism and society that is loathed by Muslim extremists. In fact, French intelligence services reported several cases of violent speeches made against France coming from Middle-Eastern countries.

Moreover, after the Second Lebanon war, Ayman al-Zawahiri made clear that Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon are part of a single Jihad[5]. The future actions of the UNIFIL, led by the French General Alain Pellegrini, may well be harshly judged by the Jihadis.

Therefore, and as a conclusion, since the bombings in Madrid and London, the European stage – France included – seems to be a highly valuable Jihadi target. But it is important not to give in to panic since most of the elements presented here have been valid for many years. Besides, France did not suffer from a successful terrorist attack from al-Qaida since 2002[6]. Actually, it appears that the radical sect of Muslims ready to take actions have reduced, whereas the number of non-violent Muslim extremists have risen. Their conception of Islam tends to prefer the political stage than the armed one[7]. It is a new, but not less necessary, challenge to address.


[2] MIPT terrorism Knowledge base,

[3] International Crisis Group, “Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel : Fact or Fiction?”, Africa Report n°92, March 31st 2005, Link

[4] See Livre Blanc sur le Terrorisme (French white book on terrorism), 2006, p.35

[5] Ronald K. Noble, “All terrorism is local too”, The New York Times, August 13, 2006

[6] See Jeremy Shapiro et Daniel Byman, “Bridging the Transatlantic Counterterrorism Gap”, The Washington Quarterly, Automne 2006, pp. 33-50

[7] Maha Azzam, Al Qaeda five years on: the threats and the challenges, Chatham House, Septembre 2006,

[8] Michael Scheuer, Zawahiri: Interationalizing Jihad, Uniting Muslims and Trumping Saudi Clerics, Jamestown Foundation, August 2, 2006

[9] In May 2002, a bombing in Karachi (Pakistan) killed 11 French engineers, and in October a suicide boat attacked a French oil tanker near the Yemeni shores.

[10] Maha Azzam, Op. Cit.