Various media outlets report today on a wide-ranging jihadist plot targeting Britain, France and Germany. As yet, very little has been made public about which specific organisations are behind the plot, though the Wall Street Journal claims that the CIA have markedly increased the amount of drone strikes against the Taliban in Pakistan in an attempt to thwart the plots.
The only specific information on imminent terror threats to a major European city has been therecent reports of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) planning attacks in Paris. Indeed, the Eiffel Tower was closed for the second time in a week last night in response to what were regarded as clear and present threats.
The question on many people’s lips about the recent reports is: how seriously should this latest threat be taken? As the only specific information has been on AQIM, it is worth looking at some of their recent activities. The head of French internal intelligence, Bernard Squarcini, has warned that “All the red lights are flashing”, and that his country faces as big a terror threat as it had in the mid-90s from Algerian-based jihadists. The reports of a threat from AQIM arose after, in response to the group kidnapping 5 French nationals from a mining colony in northern Niger, President Sarkozy ordered French special forces to locate and rescue the hostages.
Considering AQIM’s Algerian roots, it comes as no surprise that France is among their main targets, and recent evidence points to an expansion of AQIM’s sphere of operations to include Europe.
Since June 2009, when French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a speech in which he suggested a future ban in France on the burqa, the face veil worn by some Muslim women, AQIM has sought to frame France’s stance on the burqa as part of an overall war on the basic principles of Islam. Following the speech, AQIM issued the following message threatening attacks on France and suggesting that female French tourists who take holidays in the Maghreb are provoking violence through their ‘naked clothes’:
A few years back, France waged a fierce war, on our daughters who wore Hijab, and now today again it is gathering its forces and collecting all its organisation and arranging its ranks to fight a new blatant war on our sisters wearing Niqab.
The French are committing all these oppressions at a time when we find their women pouring into our countries and filling up its beaches and roads while they are dressed, in naked clothes, in an open challenge to the emotions of Muslims and an open mocking of the teachings of our Islamic religion, and their customs and traditions.
And this by Allah is the height of extremism and racism and the most apparent form of religious terrorism and incitation to hate.
For yesterday, it was Hijab and today it is Niqab and then tomorrow perhaps their sinful hands will reach forward to the obligation of prayer, fasting and Hajj.
And we are quite sure that this enmity that is apparent in the hearts of the French politicians against Islam and its people will continue, instead, it will spread and will change forms, and that’s why we call on all the Muslims to combat this enmity with a greater enmity and to meet the care of France to oppress our believing sisters on their religion, with greater care of holding on to the religious teachings of Islam, both small and big, obligatory and recommended.
As for us-the Mujahideen in the land of Islamic Maghreb then we have taken an oath to Allah, not to keep quiet on these provocative oppressions, and we will avenge for the honours of our sisters, and daughters, on France and its interests in every way we can, in every place we can and at every time we can, until France stops its oppression and stupidity and stops its oppression and its insolence.
In recent years, AQIM has mainly been found to be operating within Spain, and mostly in Catalonia. Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper reported in June 2007 that, according to Spanish counter-terrorism officials and the Spanish Confederation of Police, Catalonia had become the hub of jihadist activity not only in Spain, but also Europe.
According to al-Qaeda, the attacks on Madrid and subsequent plots were motivated by much more than Spain’s military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a video that was recovered by investigators after the Madrid bombings, a member of the Madrid cell stated that “we will continue our Jihad until Martyrdom in the land of Tarek Ben Ziyad [Arab who initiated the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 AD]”. Bin Laden and Zawahiri refer to the Iberian Peninsula as al-Andalus, harking back to a time when the region was under Muslim control between 711 and 1492 AD. To Islamists, Spain represents part of the original Islamic Caliphate and it is therefore the duty of all able bodied Muslims to take part in a ‘defensive jihad’ to re capture previously Islamic lands. They see Spain as a dar ul Islam (land of Islam) – a formerly Muslim land where violence in order to overthrow the rule of ‘unbelievers’ is not only encouraged, but also considered a duty for all able bodied Muslims.
In his 19 September 2007 video entitled The Power of Truth chief al-Qaeda ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, spoke about AQIM’s mission in Spain:
Restoring al-Andalus is a trust on the shoulders of the nation in general and on your shoulders in particular, and you will not be able to do that without first cleansing the Muslim Maghreb of the children of France and Spain, who have come back again after your fathers and grandfathers sacrificed their blood cheaply in the path of God to expel them.
AQIM have also made statements referring to what they see as their duty to reclaim Spain. In 2007 they issued a statement saying:
We embrace Jihad to fulfil [sic] an ineluctable Divine plan which has been imposed on us since the fall of al-Andalus and the sale of Palestine, and since we were divided by the borders which the invaders invented.
In fact, it has been suggested that Spain is now more of a target for AQIM than it was during its involvement in Iraq under Jose Maria Aznar. Spanish counter terrorism expert, Fernando Reinares, notes:
[…]the country seems to be more of a target for international terrorism than ever before and, based on the nature of the indicators which suggest this conclusion, this is by no means a temporary situation. The fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri keeps insisting on the violent recovery of al-Andalus as part of a future pan-Islamic caliphate, his discourse permeating now the narrative of North African groups and organizations linked to al-Qaeda, makes Spain a permanent target for individual and collective actors belonging to the multinational networks of the global neo-Salafist Jihadist movement as a whole.
It remains to be seen how credible the most recent jihadist threat to Europe is, and any further analysis will have to wait for more detailed reports.
This ABC News report claims that the cell planning the attacks was made up primarily of German citizens who travelled to Pakistan to receive training (more on German jihadists later this week on the ICSR blog). It also claims that the intel for this plot came from a German who was captured during the summer, who has also told authorities that the plot was approved by Osama bin Laden himself. If true, this is very important news, but as yet not nearly substantiated enough.