France has been at an unusually high level of alert over the past few weeks. Multiple terror warnings derived from credible intelligence sources have convinced the French authorities to warn the public of an imminent threat. And, as if that were not enough, Osama bin Laden recently delivered a taped message that was devoted to France.
The French are now in rare company. Bin Laden had before only devoted the entirety of one of his diatribes to one other country, the United States. His recent message and the reasons behind the heightened state of alert in France raise the question whether France has become al Qa'eda's top priority, and if this is the case, why?
Al Qa'eda's leadership has mentioned France consistently since they began delivering audio and video messages. But usually France has been mentioned in passing and alongside a slate of other countries. Still, the organisation has been consistent in its justifications for animosity against France: the presence of French troops in Afghanistan, the passing of a law in 2004 banning religious symbols in French public schools, and the "colonial" attitude of France in North Africa.
There may be recent events that have motivated al Qa'eda's uncommon focus on France. According to terrorism expert Roland Jacquard, French special forces have twice come close to killing bin Laden. And while in his latest message, bin Laden evoked al Qa'eda's three basic points of contention with France, adding to them the recently passed ban on Islamic face-coverings, he expressed them with a vehemence that is rare even for bin Laden.
Discussing the new face-veil ban, bin Laden said: "If you unjustly thought that it is your right to prevent free Muslim women from wearing the face veil, is it not our right to expel your invading men and cut their necks?" If this threat was not clear enough for the audience, bin Laden added: "It is a simple and clear equation. As you kill, you will be killed. As you capture, you will be captured. And as you threaten our security, your security will be threatened."
What may be more noteworthy is that the taped-message contained al Qa'eda's first public endorsement of its branch in North Africa, al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Bin Laden discussed the recent kidnapping by AQIM in Niger of a group of five French nationals as a feat of his own and called it a response to "France's oppression of Muslims". This amounts to a public rapprochement between AQIM and al Qa'eda's central leadership who have not always seen eye to eye. France has always taken second place to the Algerian government as AQIM's favoured target. France was a target more because of the support it provided Algeria through strong trade and diplomatic ties. This hierarchy seems to have disappeared.
Certainly, pulling off a spectacular attack on French soil would lend a huge boost to AQIM's credibility within the larger organisation. But bin Laden's recent message seems to indicate that it has already proven itself worthy to the central leadership.
While AQIM is reported to have sleeper cells all over Europe and a logistical network to support them, the French authorities have so far thwarted their plans before they became operational. When the third-ranking member of AQIM was arrested last year, he was reported to be on his way to France to co-ordinate multiple attacks.
Meanwhile, this summer, a French-Mauritanian operation failed to free a French hostage held by AQIM. After six AQIM members were also killed, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the group's commander, announced that the hostage, Michel Germaneau, had been executed. Droukdel called for revenge and the unleashing of a major war against France.
One of AQIM's favourite targets, the Eiffel tower, was also an obsession for the organisation that was its parent, the Algerian GIA. The group hijacked a plane in 1994 and wanted to crash it into the Eiffel tower. French Special Forces stormed the plane and thwarted the plot. Acting on credible intelligence from Algeria last month, French authorities evacuated the Paris landmark twice.
The rise of "the Libyan", Abu Yahya al Libi, within the ranks of al Qa'eda's commander structure may also have something to do with its intensifying focus on France. Al Libi is said to detest France more than any other nation in the world. Intelligence reports also suggest that al Qa'eda's efforts to attack France are not limited to AQIM. Its branch in Yemen also appears to be trying hard to do the same.
What may concern authorities in France the most, however, is not these efforts beyond its borders. The French have done an admirable job of countering threats that have emerged on foreign soil but they may be unaware of homegrown threats to security.
Indeed, with his most recent message, bin Laden may have been trying to reach out to those who have been radicalised in France. It is this threat that may worry French security services most of all.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geo-political consultant based in Europe. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html