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Alert en France!

15/11/2010

All of Europe is at an elevated terrorism alert level. Aside from ongoing separatist threats from traditional ETA and IRA groups, Greek left-wingers and various other small-time dissident groups, the biggest threat has been a spike in threats emanating from al-Qaeda or affiliated networks. Most European governments have chosen to respond to this threat with something of a moderated tone – the British government continues to quietly counter terrorism, while the Germans have admitted the problem is serious, but nonetheless have maintained a moderated tone. The exception to this would be the French, whose Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux (whose name appropriately enough contains the word “fires”) has repeatedly taken to the airwaves to shout about the imminent threat to the French mainland.

There is no doubt that the French Minister has good reason to be concerned: Osama bin Laden picked France out for particular vitriol in his last cassette; AQIM has been actively kidnapping Frenchmen wandering around North Africa; and friendly intelligence services like the Saudis and the Algerians have been passing on alarming bits of intelligence pointing to direct threats to the country.

The French have responded to this with an active clamp down on networks in their country. In September, flares went up when Algerian intelligence told them a female suicide bomber was heading their way leading to a substantial beefing up of security at major tourist attractions. In October, they asked the Italians to pick up Riad Hannouni, a returnee from the Afghan conflict who was found in Naples with bomb making information on him. Tracking phone numbers and information on his laptop, a group of 12 were arrested in Avignon, Bordeaux and Marseille. It was not clear if they all were linked to Hannouni, but among their belongings were found a pump action shotgun, an AK-47 and ammunition.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week a new group of five was picked up in central Paris and at Roissy airport. Two men were arriving from Egypt had apparently come directly from the Afghan-Pakistan region. According to a press conference given by the Interior Minister, at least one of the men (apparently a woman was also amongst those picked up) was involved in a plot to kill the head of the Paris main mosque, Dalil Boubakeur. One of them was also prepared to die in the conduct of his action.

In a hint as to why the French are quite so alarmed by this, Mr. Hortefeux said, the plot to kill the Imam was “taken all the more seriously because the wave of attacks that hit our country in 1995 began with the killing of imam Saraoui from the mosque on the rue Myrrha.”

This statement is particularly worth noting as it shows the level of concern in France remains elevated. It also suggests that their previously overconfident attitude regarding the effectiveness of their counter-terror strategy was perhaps premature.

France was known for watching networks and threatening them quietly if they stepped over the line. They would try some “Prevent” type measures, but broadly they saw that a more robust approach was the more effective answer. I recall a friend telling me about a high level French participant to a conference on Prevent sneering at the whole experience, saying something along the lines of: “Prevent is for p****s.”

The French approach has been oddly progressive and draconian in similar measure: on the one hand Sarkozy pushes affirmative action, while on the other he bans the veil. When it comes to countering terrorism, they warn people off if they think they are veering down the wrong path, presumably to save them the trouble of having to chase them later, while on the other hand they come down hard on Adelene Hicheur, the Algerian-French scientist who a year later has yet to be charged. The evidence against Hicheur was always a bit odd – he appears to have been in contact with AQIM online and may have been passing them money, but at the same time he did not seem to have actually done any terrorist planning. A year later he is still in jail under French legislation that allows judges to hold people without charges for some time, while colleagues on the outside continue to plead his innocence.

But having said all this, the French have had a very successful counter-terror experience more broadly. It has been since 1996 with the GIA campaign that they have managed to keep Islamist terrorism away from the homeland. Maybe shouting and clamping down does work.