Extremists seize on French boycott to promote terrorist attacks

Al Qaeda-linked extremists exploit Emmanuel Macron’s comments about Islam

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Al Qaeda-linked extremists have seized on the growing campaign for a boycott of French goods to incite violence against the country’s political leadership.

A message posted on Telegram by a prominent online supporter of the group claimed that the boycott should be the minimum required because of the “immoral crusade” launched by France.

President Emmanuel Macron has been buffeted by criticism from parts of the Muslim world after promising to target Islamism in France. He also vowed to protect the country’s values of freedom of expression following the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in class.

Syria-based Al Qaeda supporter Jallad Al Murji’ah used his Telegram account with 3,500 followers to encourage attacks on French businesses and interests abroad. He said the response against Mr Macron must be “harsh”, according to the message first identified by the BBC’s Media Monitoring unit.

The unit also said that 24 high-profile Al Qaeda supporters online on Sunday called on Muslims to work with what they had at their “disposal to target French interests inside the country and out”.

The threats were made against a growing backdrop of tension between France and some Muslim nations over Mr Macron’s policies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Monday for Turks to boycott French goods because of what he said was Mr Macron’s “anti-Islam agenda”. He repeated for the third day that the French leader needed a mental health check.

France’s Foreign Ministry claims that the criticism is being driven by a radical minority and has urged foreign governments not to back the trade boycott.

“Consequently, the calls for boycott are pointless and must cease immediately, as must all attacks against our country, instrumentalised by a radical minority,” it said in a statement.

The increasingly bitter dispute between Ankara and Paris has been hijacked by a network of Islamists to promote their agenda, according to one counter-extremism expert.

“What this has shown is that there is a well programmed and financed network of individuals who are Islamist in ideology who are leading the charge,” said Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Faith Matters. “They are infecting the minds of other Islamic communities who have concerns about their safety in Europe.”

“Mr Macron is talking about Islamism, not Islam, but these people are manipulating events by turning fact into fiction.”

Critics include Maher Al Huli, a leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, who condemned the comments by Mr Macron “and whoever offends the Prophet Mohammed, whether through words, actions, gestures or drawings”.

On Monday, the Taliban in Afghanistan added its voice to the outcry, saying Macron's comments amounted to "a stand against nations". The Taliban said “it would be better if he carefully studied Islam instead of making ignorant Islamophobic remarks”.

“Groups like Al Qaeda are keen to make this out to be a clash between French secularism and the entirety of Islam,” said Robin Simcox, director of the Counter Extremism Group, a London-based think-tank.

“That’s a dishonest way to frame the issue. We should be wary of those exploiting this gruesome murder in order to advance a false narrative that the French response to Samuel Paty’s beheading is part of a campaign against Muslims.”

Amid the backdrop of the diplomatic dispute, Mr Macron will present his proposals for combating extremism to his cabinet in December.

Interior minister Gerald Mr Darmanin has also proposed dismantling organisations including the French Collective Against Islamophobia and the Islamic charity BarakaCity that he described as “enemies of the republic”.

BarakaCity’s founder Idriss Sihamedi was released on bail last week after being accused of harassing critics on social media.

Mr Sihamedi, who sparked outrage in 2016 for refusing to condemn ISIS on a French television programme, has re-tweeted a number of articles promoting the boycott and opposing the crackdown.

“We will not give in, ever,” he wrote. “We will never give up our religion and we refuse government interference.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of a mosque in the Parisian suburb of Pantin, that was ordered to be shut by the Interior Ministry for links to the hate campaign against Mr Paty, withdrew a legal appeal against the order on Monday. It will now remain closed for six months.