Oct 1, 2010

Terror Threats and Alerts in France

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By Scott Stewart

The Eiffel Tower was evacuated Sept. 28 after an anonymous bomb threat against the symbolic Parisian tourist attraction was phoned in; no explosive device was found. The day before the Eiffel Tower threat, French authorities closed the Gare Saint-Lazare in central Paris after an abandoned package, later determined innocuous, was spotted in the train station.

These two incidents serve as the latest reminders of the current apprehension in France that a terrorist attack is imminent. This concern was expressed in a very public way Sept. 11, when Bernard Squarcini, the head of France’s Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (known by its French acronym, DCRI), told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that the risk of an attack in France has never been higher. Never is a long time, and France has long faced terrorist threats, making this statement quite remarkable.

Squarcini has noted in recent interviews that the combination of France’s history as a colonial power, its military involvement in Afghanistan and the impending French ban on veils that cover the full face and body (niqabs and burqas) combined to influence this threat environment.

A Month of Threats

After the French Senate approved the burqa ban Sept. 14 — which will go into effect next March — a bomb threat against the Eiffel Tower was called in that evening, causing French authorities to evacuate the site and sweep it for explosive devices.

On Sept. 16, five French citizens were abducted from the Nigerien uranium-mining town of Arlit in an operation later claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a claim French Defense Minister Herve Morin later assessed as valid. In July, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared that France was at war with the North African al Qaeda franchise after the group killed a French hostage it had kidnapped in April. Fillon’s announcement came three days after the end of a four-day French-Mauritanian offensive against AQIM militants that resulted in the deaths of several militants. After the offensive, AQIM branded French President Nicolas Sarkozy an enemy of Allah and warned France that it would not rest until it had avenged the deaths of its fighters.

French officials have also received unsubstantiated reports from foreign liaison services of plans for suicide bombings in Paris. National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard told Europe 1 radio Sept. 22 that in addition to the threatening statements from AQIM, the French have received specific information that the group is working to target France.

On Sept. 6, Der Spiegel reported that authorities were investigating reports provided by the United States that a German-born Islamist extremist arrested in Afghanistan has warned of possible terrorist attacks in Germany and elsewhere in Europe — including France — planned by jihadists based in Pakistan. This story hit the English-language media Sept. 28, and included reports that the threat may have involved plans to launch Mumbai-like armed assaults in multiple targets in Europe.

In the words of Squarcini to the press, these combined incidents mean “all the blinkers are on red.” This statement is strikingly similar to one in the 9/11 Commission Report attributed to then-CIA Director George Tenet, who said that in July 2001 “the system was blinking red.”

While an examination of the current threat situation in France is interesting, it is equally interesting to observe the way that the French are handling their threat warnings in the media.

The Threat Environment in France

While its neighbors such as Spain and the United Kingdom have suffered bloody attacks since 9/11, the French so far apparently have been spared — although there are some who suspect the yet-unsolved June 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 may have resulted from foul play, along with the explosion at the AZF fertilizer plant in September 2001.

France has long been squarely in the crosshairs of jihadist groups such as AQIM. This is due not only to its former colonial involvement in North Africa but also to its continued support of governments in countries like Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia deemed un-Islamic by jihadists. It is also due to France’s military commitment in Afghanistan. Moreover, on the domestic side, France has a significant Muslim minority largely segregated in slums known in French as “banlieues” outside France’s major cities. A significant proportion of the young Muslim men who live in these areas are unemployed and disaffected. This disaffection has been displayed periodically in the form of large-scale riots such as those in October 2005 and November 2007, both of which resulted in massive property destruction and produced the worst civil unrest in France since the late 1960s. While not all those involved in the riots were Muslims, Muslims did play a significant and visible role in them.

Moves by the French government such as the burqa ban have stoked these tensions and feelings of anger and alienation. The ban, like the 2004 ban against headscarves in French schools, angered not only jihadists but also some mainstream Muslims in France and beyond.

Still, other than a minor bombing outside the the Indonesian Embassy in Paris in October 2004, France has seemingly been spared the type of attacks seen in Madrid in March 2004 and London in July 2005. And this is in spite of the fact that France has had to deal with Islamist militants for far….

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