France's recently elected President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a new challenge to the security of his nation from some old foes: Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement. One of Al Qaeda's top priorities in the last year has been to create a franchise in Algeria to serve as a node for jihad in North Africa and throughout the Maghrebi diaspora in Western Europe.
Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, negotiated with the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat for two years or more on the terms and conditions for having the group join the movement. Late last year, Bin Laden ordered that the group be renamed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and it began conducting attacks in that name soon thereafter, starting with a series of strikes at police stations and Western oil targets.
On April 12, the new group carried out multiple suicide car bombings, previously unknown in Algeria, targeting the prime minister's offices and police headquarters in Algiers, killing almost three dozen people. A truck bomb was apparently defused.
But Zawahiri has made clear that it is France that's the major target. In announcing Al Qaeda's new Maghrebi franchise on Sept. 11, 2006, Zawahiri declared that it would be "a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness for the apostates [of the regime in Algeria], the treacherous sons of France," and he urged the group to become "a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders." French intelligence officials anticipate attacks on French targets in North Africa and probably in France itself sooner or later. Indeed, jihadist websites in Europe have predicted an attack on French interests since Sarkozy's victory.
Threats against France are not new for the old Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. According to media reports, in February 2005, for example, the French domestic intelligence agency estimated that the group had about 5,000 sympathizers and militants in France, centered on 500 hard-core individuals. Many in France's Algerian community are already angry at Sarkozy for his tough words during the 2005 riots in their urban ghettos, and he is considered to be much more sympathetic to Israel than his predecessor.
Zawahiri's warning should be taken very seriously in Europe and by the United States. Al Qaeda has struck in London, Istanbul and Madrid. There have been past reports of plans by Algerian terrorist groups to attack American and Israeli targets in France and Belgium, as well as NATO or European Union installations.
Finally, one should recall that the first-ever plan to fly a hijacked airliner into a target on the ground was a thwarted 1994 plot by Algerian jihadists to crash an Air France jet into the Eiffel Tower, which the 9/11 commission rightly said may have been the model for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.