According to a leaked secret French report examined by the Arab newspaper al-Hayat, Osama bin Laden plans to repeat the “Spanish scenario” by attacking selected French targets during the upcoming April presidential election campaign in an attempt to influence the results (al-Hayat, February 9). According to the report, entitled “Assessment of the Radical Islamic Threat in France,” a multiplicity of indicators—threatening letters on websites close to al-Qaeda, an alleged letter from bin Laden encouraging Salafi-Jihadi groups to attack France and the arrests of various jihadis in France—suggest an attack is likely. While French officials do not deny the existence of the intelligence report, they note their lack of belief that any one element is capable of preparing that scale of an attack during the elections. Irrespective of the above claims, an al-Qaeda perpetrated or al-Qaeda inspired attack by another organization could result in influencing which candidate wins as well as domestic and foreign policy initiatives.
In Spain’s 2004 parliamentary elections, the public viewed the incumbent government (the conservative Popular Party), which was the expected winner, as taking a pro-Iraq policy, one which the Spanish public was against. Following the March 11, 2004 attacks on Spain’s train system, the public interpreted the terrorist act as a direct result of the Spanish government’s policy and voted in the Socialists. In France, conversely, the government does not have a pro-Iraq policy; instead, it is one of the more pro-Arab states in the West. Various French foreign and domestic policies, however, have caused France to lose its “neutrality” and have made it a target for terrorism by militant Islamist groups (Terrorism Focus, September 26, 2006). A terrorist attack could influence the French to vote against a candidate who might be viewed as “weak” on domestic security issues. French candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, is strong against immigration, while his opponent, Segolene Royale, is more sympathetic to immigrants. In terms of influencing domestic and foreign policies, an attack could sway enough of the public to vote for a candidate who favors taking stronger action against terrorism out of the belief that the current government’s “quiescent policies” have brought terrorism to the homeland.
Concerning the threat of terrorist attacks during the presidential elections, there are various militant Islamist groups operating within France that could cause significant harm. The most serious threat stems from the Qaedat al-Jihad in the Arab Maghreb Countries (or al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb), formerly known as the GSPC. In the recent past, both al-Qaeda and the GSPC have issued threats to attack French targets (Le Figaro, February 9). Other entities that have the potential to strike are the Iraqi jihadi networks operating in France. According to a variety of sources, large numbers of European jihadis are returning from Iraq and are setting up secret networks to carry out terrorist activities in France, as well as in other countries (20minutes.fr, February 9; Le Monde, February 17). According to the French intelligence report, other “threat centers” include those individuals trained in the Afghan-Pakistani camps due to their capability of conducting lethal attacks—several trainees were recently detained in Britain, Belgium, Spain and Morocco, and were in possession of Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar’s (alias Abu Mus’ab al-Suri) “A Jihadist Guide,” exhorting members to attack France on the grounds that it is “a legitimate target for jihad” (al-Hayat, February 9).
Although French intelligence reports deny that there are clearly identified GSPC or other terrorist units on French soil, al-Qaeda elements and the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb have the technical capacity and motivation to conduct terrorist attacks prior to or during the upcoming April elections.