Is France Next on al-Qaeda’s Hit List?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 4

The latest cyber-terror “chatter” has prompted fears that France is once again in al-Qaeda’s sights. Spared from terror atrocities since the 1995-1996 wave of bombings that shocked the country, France seems braced for the worst, stepping up its national security alert system while investigating multiple terror threats. Portuguese aviation authorities warned French counterterrorism officials of a “vague and confused” conversation they intercepted on January 10 threatening terrorist attacks against Paris (Le Monde, January 11). Ten days later, the French daily Le Parisien published an interview with Fatiha Mejjati, the “Black Widow” of al-Qaeda, in which she warned of imminent attacks against France. “France will be punished for its allegiance to America,” said the widow of Karim Mejjati, a notorious al-Qaeda operative killed in Saudi Arabia in April 2005 (Le Parisien, January 21). Mejjati’s warning comes on the heels of the arraignment of several terrorism suspects in Spain and a subsequent warning from Spanish authorities of possible attacks against France designed to coincide with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s four-nation visit to Europe last week.

Real or not, these threats are creating a state of hyper-vigilance. A posting in Arabic on the al-ekhlaas forum on January 4 threatened to put an end to the growing ambitions of French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the Islamic Maghreb—Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia—and to provoke “a collapse of the French economy at the international level” (al-ekhlaas, January 4). The originator of this virtual conspiracy was a cyber-jihadi using the name Mourabit Mouwahed (Combatant for Unity). To convince his audience and potential conspirators of the rationale and soundness of his terror project, he enumerated the targets, goals and benefits of striking the French capital. Besides the devastating damage that such strikes would inflict on France, the attack would send “a signal to the neighboring countries in Europe that contribute to the wars against Muslims, like Germany.” It would also “silence Sarkozy” and bring an end to his “anti-Muslim” policies, characterized by his support of “dictators” and “participation in the war against Islam” (L’Express, January 11).

To achieve these goals, Mouwahed reminds his mujahideen brothers that Paris, “known as the city of lights,” is a “symbolically important capital” and that they have enough latitude to identify the targets as long as they are relevant and meet certain criteria (al-ekhlaas, January 4). The hit list must include landmark sites and other high economic value targets in addition to prestigious Parisian personalities like the mayor of Paris. If anyone was wondering how Mouwahed and his fellow cyber-jihadis assembled their quite exhaustive list of targets with its “practical information” on “geographical features” and “transportation hubs,” the conspirators were eager to cite their sources: Wikipedia, Google and Google Earth (al-ekhlaas, January 4). They were also eager to take questions, offer advice and exchange information with their virtual “friends” about how best to conduct terrorist operations.

Mouwahed and his fellow cyber-jihadis seem adept at using innovative web networking applications—a new phase of internet use sometimes referred to as Web 2.0. The Jihadist International movement, as Mark Hecker of the French Institute for International Relations wrote recently, looks more like Web 2.0 than a multinational franchise, with Mouwahed and others operating in virtual space independently of any organizational hierarchy. Bin Laden is probably no more than a remote spiritual leader of Mouwahed and other cyber-terrorists (Le Figaro, September 11, 2007). A similar point was made as early as 2000 by Abu Mus’ab al-Suri in his 1500 page encyclopedia of jihad. “Al-Qaeda is not an organization,” he wrote. “It is a call, a reference, a methodology” (see Terrorism Monitor, September 21, 2006).

Regardless of whether or not Mouwahed and his comrades in cyberspace are independent “wikijihadis” or receive operational instructions from al-Qaeda’s Waziristan base, the threats seem alarming and are taken seriously by French authorities. The Ekhlhaas site has been used before by al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan to spread communiqués, videos and other messages whose authenticity has been repeatedly confirmed. A high government official recently warned that “there is a heightened chatter [on the jihadi chat-forums] that persists and tends to be amplified,” adding that France has been increasingly targeted in communiqués attributed to Bin Laden, his second-in-command, al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s branch in the Islamic Maghreb (Le Figaro, January 11).

The tragic slaying of four French tourists on December 24 in southern Mauritania by suspected al-Qaeda militants sparked fears that al-Zawahiri’s appeal to Muslims in September to “cleanse” the Maghreb “of the children of France and Spain” was well received by his operatives and sympathizers in the region (Magharebia, September 24, 2007; Reuters, January 7). This and other explicit threats against French interests in the Maghreb pushed the French foreign ministry to call for the cancellation of the 30th running of the Dakar Rally through Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal (Afrique en ligne, January 7). It also prompted some high-ranking French police officers to visit their counterparts in several countries of the Maghreb in order to consolidate and coordinate their anti-terrorist cooperation (Le Figaro, January 11).