In July, newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Algiers to reaffirm France’s “deep friendship” with the Maghreb and present his project of a “Mediterranean Union” designed to promote a strong and durable relationship between the Maghreb and Europe. In the aftermath of Sarkozy’s visit, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) strongly condemned the proposed treaty. Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, AQIM’s leader, stated, “It [the treaty] would be a total crime added to the black list of crimes committed by France against this country [Algeria], and it will be another betrayal of the ruling regime in Algeria added to its account which is full of betrayal…that is what our ummah with all its different categories must refuse, confront and fight by all means.” AQIM’s condemnation of France’s political overture was expected. The Islamist groups who fought the Algerian regime during the 1990s (first the FIS, then the GIA and finally the GSPC) have long denounced France for its historical role in Algeria and its support to the ruling party. Last month’s condemnation, however, is the first of a French policy initiative since the GSPC became the latest al-Qaeda franchise. As such, it should be carefully scrutinized.
The language and tone of AQIM’s communique reveals a mixture of anti-colonialist nationalistic sentiment and of Salafi-Jihadi zeal that reflects the ideological duality of the group since it was officially accepted by Ayman al-Zawahiri as an al-Qaeda franchise (LExpress.fr, April 18; Le Figaro, September 14, 2006). On the one hand, Wadud uses anti-colonial rhetoric to criticize France’s supposed domination of Algeria. Such diatribe against France’s “exploitation and crimes” has always been the hallmark of the GIA and the GSPC. In this vein, Wadud first asserts that France’s history in Algeria is “replete with crimes and injustices, domination and tyranny, genocide and murder, exile and eviction,” focusing on France’s colonization of Algeria from 1830 to 1962. In short, nothing in the history of French Algeria would warrant any kind of friendship treaty today. On the other hand, Wadud resorts to al-Qaeda-inspired ideology accusing France of participating in a “Christian crusade” to dominate the Muslim world. Wadud charges that France’s colonial policies were designed “to strip the Muslims of their identity and religious values.” Furthermore, he adds, this “crusader inclination” continues today as France participates “with America in occupying Afghanistan and [in] conspiring against Lebanon and other Muslim countries.” It is worth noting that Wadud repeats only two of al-Zawahiri’s three justifications to entice attacks against France. For al-Zawahiri, France is guilty of three “crimes”: assisting the United States in Afghanistan; supporting UN Resolution 1701 on Lebanon; and eroding the rights of true Muslims by promoting secularism.
In conclusion, Wadud argues that France’s role (past and present) both as a “cruel” colonial power and a “crusader” precludes any friendship treaty with Algeria. The artful communique reads: “So how can France or any of its followers in Algeria be able to jump on this terrible legacy and ignore this painful past and call for friendship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the offender and the victim, before the administration of justice, the deterring of injustice and the fulfillment of rights?” On these grounds, all Muslims must “refuse, confront and fight [the proposed treaty] by all means.” Although the threat is vague, it should be taken seriously as AQIM might benefit from mounting opportunities to strike French interests in France and/or abroad.
First, both al-Qaeda and AQIM have placed France on their “hit list.” Last September, al-Zawahiri called on the GSPC to strike France. In his speech accepting the pledge of allegiance from the GSPC, al-Zawahiri said: “This sacred union [between al-Qaeda and the GSPC] will spread fear in the hearts of the traitors and unbelievers of France” (Le Figaro, September 14, 2006). When Wadud announced the re-branding of the GSPC as AQIM, he also stated that France was the group’s principal enemy. This statement of intent represented a departure from the group’s predecessors. Both the GIA and the GSPC had threatened France in the 1990s and early 2000s. The GIA even hijacked an Air France plane in December 1994 to intimidate the French government into relinquishing its support to the government of Algiers. Both the GIA and the GSPC, however, made it their goal to unseat the ruling regime in Algiers and replace it with an Islamic government. For them, striking France was a way to weaken the government in Algiers. AQIM has apparently chosen to strike the far enemy, at least for the time being.
Second, French authorities have reported that GSPC support networks have strengthened during the past few years in France and Europe. In particular, they note that the GSPC has substantially reinforced its presence in Germany and Italy since 2003. As of 2007, French counter-terrorism authorities consider that several dozen networks, most of them close to the GSPC, are active in France. They also note that several of these cells have been implicated in recruiting volunteers for the Iraq jihad (Le Figaro, September 14, 2006). In addition, Spanish media recently reported that AQIM supporters are collecting funds and recruiting volunteers for training in North Africa (Aujourd’hui le Maroc, April 18).
Third, French authorities worry that those networks might gain a boost from two sources. In accordance with its national reconciliation plan, the Algerian government has begun to release thousands of Islamists and terrorists captured during the civil war of the 1990s. The GSPC’s amir has called on them to join his movement. French authorities fear that some of these individuals who join AQIM after their release from prison may decide to leave Algeria and mount terrorist operations in France. The challenge will be to intercept them before they can accomplish their misdeeds. This might be all the more challenging since some of the Islamic militants imprisoned in France in the 1990s for their support and/or participation in the terrorist attacks of 1995-1996 and the failed plots of 1998 have or are about to be released. Once out of jail, they might reconstitute their own networks or join newer ones. Their past expertise and contacts will represent a capital that AQIM can tap into.
In conclusion, the globalization of the Algerian struggle through the merger between the GSPC and al-Qaeda represents an increased threat for France in particular and Europe in general. AQIM has set up the means and the motive: funding streams established throughout Europe; increased availability of (experienced) foot soldiers; and a renovated ideological framework able to inspire a new generation of fighters. The only element missing in the puzzle is opportunity.