Al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent September 11 threat to France, coupled with al-Qaeda’s official integration with the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), is significant for two principal reasons. First, from al-Qaeda’s perspective, it is a formal alliance with an “out-of-area” Islamist group to specifically engage in jihad against Europe and elsewhere. Secondly, the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda formalizes the GSPC’s participation in al-Qaeda terrorist-related activities against Western targets. This development brings the GSPC to the counter-terrorism debate in a different way than before. The GSPC-al-Qaeda integration portends increased opportunities for al-Qaeda to recruit European jihadists for ongoing terrorist operations in the West and the Middle East and signifies the potential for an increased operational tempo by the two organizations against French and Western targets.
Al-Qaeda’s threat to France raises the stakes for French counter-terrorism officials, especially given al-Zawahiri’s September 11 designation of France as “prey” in the global jihad (Le Figaro, September 14). It is not surprising that France is the target for future terrorist attacks: France remains the GSPC’s preference for terrorist operations due to the legacy of the 1990s and the GIA’s violent struggle against the Algerian government as well as its targeting of France (the GSPC is a splinter group of the GIA). Moreover, various French foreign and domestic policies have caused France to lose its “neutrality” and make it a target for terrorism: participation in Desert Storm; participation in the international force in Lebanon, which Islamist groups view as a joint U.S.-Israeli operation to protect Israel’s position in the Middle East; and laws to regulate Islamic religious symbols in schools, such as headscarves. Al-Zawahiri said that the “blessed union” of al-Qaeda and the GSPC should “be a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness for the apostates [of the regime in Algeria], the treacherous sons of [former colonial power] France,” and urged the group to become “a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders” (Le Monde, September 18; Libération, September 19).
According to the French minister of the interior, France is under a “vigilance absolute,” and the threat level was raised and will remain so indefinitely (Le Monde, September 18). Moreover, it is not insignificant that there is an active and large Muslim community in France. In February 2005, for example, the French domestic intelligence agency, Renseignements Généraux, estimated that there are about 5,000 sympathizers and militants in France part of the Salafi-Jihad, grouped around 500 hard-core individuals (Radio France Internationale, September). The French Ministries of Defense and Interior said that France will enact specific counter-terrorism actions to deal with the threat, but will design the policies to not intentionally “provoke the Islamists” (http://www.algerie-dz.com, September 19). According to a September 2005 report produced by the French Antiterrorist Coordination Unit, France was considered a prime target for terrorist groups inspired by Islamism, most notably from combatants from Maghreb countries trained to undergo terrorist operations by the GSPC (Le Figaro, September 19; El Watan, September 20). In 2005, the GSPC singled out France as its “enemy number one,” and in August of the same year appealed to Muslims living in France to attack those officials linked to the Algerian regime living in France (Radio France Internationale, September 14).
Numerous terrorist operations in Europe planned by individuals identified as belonging to the GSPC indicate that the group has an agenda to expand its range of operations to new battlefronts where al-Qaeda has been active. In May, for example, it threatened to attack “American military bases in Mali and Niger,” and planning for these operations was taking place “in Algeria and in Mauritania” (Terrorism Focus, May 17). The GSPC certainly calculated that a partnership with al-Qaeda would increase the GSPC’s appeal to Algerians to continue fighting the Algerian government, which in turn would enhance the organization’s continued existence. In addition, integrating with al-Qaeda elevates the GSPC into a new hierarchical international position, one that will increase its Salafi Islamist appeal to European Muslims. The GSPC has been an established actor in Europe’s North African network of Salafi Islamists, which have supported jihadi activities in Algeria, Iraq and in Europe, and is active in recruiting from the North African and Muslim communities in European countries.
For al-Qaeda, partnering with an organization that has actively tried to overthrow an apostate government through terrorism lends a certain “state” legitimacy to al-Qaeda. The GSPC contributes to al-Qaeda’s ongoing objective to significantly mobilize global Muslim support for its agenda, a development in which al-Qaeda has not completely succeeded. As al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities around the world have diminished, a partnership with a Salafi Islamist group might provide al-Qaeda with more manpower and other resources, including access to possible targets in Europe and elsewhere. Due to the GSPC’s network of recruitment cells throughout Europe—many of which have been disrupted and its members detained in recent years—al-Qaeda can conceivably draw upon new European Muslim recruits for jihad in Iraq, Europe and elsewhere.
The integration of the two organizations was very calculated and should be taken seriously. The unique capabilities of each group—propaganda techniques, recruitment activities and technical means to conduct a variety of terrorist operations—are now doubled. Foremost, the GSPC specializes in attacks against military targets and its training of potential recruits for activity in Iraq would certainly be important in helping al-Qaeda find technically qualified commandos who understand the nature of attacking convoys, military quarters, etc. Moreover, the GSPC is known to train terrorist recruits from other countries in North Africa, notably Tunisians, Libyans, Moroccans and Mauritanians. A second consideration is assessing the impact of the merger: is al-Qaeda trying to strengthen itself by formalizing partnerships with selected Islamist groups, or is it an indication of a weakening organization that needs to rely on regional jihadi groups for personnel and materiel?
Consideration should be applied to what the merger means for al-Qaeda’s evolving ideology, as well as its propaganda activities to continue to portray itself as the ideological leader of global Islamist movements. Similarly, command-and-control implications for al-Qaeda are important since the integration could give GSPC leadership figures the authority to plan and execute terrorist attacks in Europe as well as in other regions. A possible evolution of leadership authority could result in al-Qaeda remaining “in charge” of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, whereas the GSPC could be the head of all Europe and Africa operations. An additional factor is the implications for al-Qaeda and GSPC fundraising activities as it could result in an integration of networks that are devoted to financing terrorism operations.
The GSPC’s new political agenda of international terrorism and integration into the worldwide jihad is one which supports al-Qaeda’s view of a worldwide conflict between “true” Muslims and the “Zionist-crusader alliance,” exactly the characteristic that the GSPC now attributes to France. Most importantly, the formal alliance portends strengthening Europe as a battleground, and likely will engender more sympathy for Iraq and other causes, potentially attracting more European Muslims to the global Salafi-Jihad.