Can France Sidestep a Jihadist Attack Much Longer?

4 MINS READJul 29, 2005 | 22:50 GMT
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said July 29 that at least seven Frenchmen have been killed while fighting for al Qaeda in Iraq and elsewhere, some in suicide attacks. Sarkozy's statement is the latest addition to a long trail of evidence indicating that militant Islam has made inroads into the French Muslim community. It also suggests that France, like London before July 7, should be asking not whether a major jihadist attack will occur — but when. Conditions in France are conducive to the formation and operation of jihadist cells. France has a large Muslim community composed of immigrants and of Muslims born in France, which constitutes a large recruitment pool for al Qaeda mid-level operatives. Planners of the London bombings recruited in this manner. Many of France's Muslims live in the slum areas of major cities, while France's prisons are teeming with Muslims — a situation French sociologists blame on marginalization and high poverty and unemployment rates among the Muslim minority. French Muslim leaders also have asserted that racism and discrimination are the root cause of unemployment and crime rates among the Muslim minority. This climate could provide jihadists with a large pool of sympathizers and potential recruits. In October 2004, an improvised explosive device detonated outside the Indonesian Embassy in Paris, injuring six pedestrians and four embassy workers who were in the building's basement at the time. Algerian Islamist militants also staged a series of attacks, involving gas canisters filled with nails and bolts, on the Paris subway system in 1995 and 1996. During the 1980s France experienced a rash of terrorist attacks. In 1981 and 1982, a group known as the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction attacked as series of diplomatic and military targets in several French cities. During this time, the notorious "Carlos the Jackal" bombed a Paris passenger train, killing five people. He also killed six people and injured 80 others in a series of attacks against the railroad system around Marseilles. French authorities and others, however, have thwarted other, potentially serious, plots. As recently as January, French police arrested a cell of alleged Chechen and Algerian militants and charged members with plotting terrorist attacks in Western Europe. According to French authorities, the group was planning attacks against government and Jewish targets in Britain, as well as against Russian diplomatic and business targets in Western and Central Europe. Other targets included tourist attractions and crowds in Britain and France, as well as French train stations. "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence in the United States for trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with an explosives-stuffed shoe in December 2001, staged his attack out of France. In 2001, French authorities broke up a French-Algerian terrorist cell that was planning to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The six militants, some of whom French authorities had linked to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In 2001, Algerian extremists were convicted in connection with a plot to attack a Christmas market at the Strasbourg Cathedral on New Year's Eve 2000. Although France is not involved in military operations in Iraq — which often is cited as the reason for terrorist attacks in certain countries — it raised the ire of the Muslim community with a ban against the wearing of traditional Islamic headscarves by women. In response to the ban, a Parisian newspaper received a faxed letter in March 2004 threatening attacks against France and French interests abroad. French authorities believe the threats were connected to a network of Chechen and North African militants. From abroad, Egypt's moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood warned in December 2004 that the headscarf ban would plant the "seeds of hatred" between Muslims and France. The group, which is outlawed in Egypt, added that the ban was tantamount to interference in the individual and religious freedoms of Muslims who live in France. In September 2004, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, released an audiotape that included, among other statements, condemnation of France — likely for its headscarf ban. With conditions ripe for jihadist activity in France, and cities full of symbolic soft targets such as the Eiffel Tower, it is only a matter of time before France also is hit by jihadist violence — most likely in Paris and quite possible involving suicide attacks.

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