Westerners Kidnapped in North Africa — but Is France the Real Target?

Less than a week into France's military intervention against Islamist militias in Mali, evidence builds confirming French concerns that their country has become the main focus of jihadi terrorist activity

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Jerome Delay / AP

French troops gather in a hangar at Bamako's airport in Mali on Jan. 15, 2013

Updated: Jan. 17, 2013 at 4:15 a.m. EST

Have France and the French moved to the top of the list of terrorist targets? French leaders are taking no chances. They have alerted their constituencies and the public in general to the increased terrorism threat following President François Hollande’s Jan. 11 announcement of France’s military intervention in Mali against al-Qaeda-linked forces controlling the northern half of the country. Tightened security measures sent hundreds of armed soldiers patrolling Metros, train stations, airports and tourist sites across France, while officials instructed the French people to be wary of the increased risk of attack at home — and abroad. “We’re facing an exterior enemy and an interior enemy,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls stressed Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, al-Qaeda-allied groups in Africa proved that warning was well founded. News reports indicated Islamist radicals had kidnapped numerous French and European workers — and, the U.S. State Department confirmed, several Americans — from an oil installation in eastern Algeria. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its regional allies have long used hostage taking as a fundraising and terrorism method. Around the same time, Somalia’s al-Shabab militia announced it would execute a French spy it has held for three and a half years in response to a failed Jan. 12 commando mission to rescue him that left 17 extremists and two French soldiers dead (on Thursday, al-Shabab claimed it had killed him). Those developments came after warnings by a jihadi leader in Mali on Monday that by attacking Islamist forces in Africa, “François Hollande opened the gates of hell for all French people.”

(MORE: The Crisis in Mali: Will French Air Strikes Stop the Islamist Advance?)

All that action seemed to indicate that French anti-Islamist action in Mali and elsewhere in Africa had already set jihadi groups seeking retaliation — with France looming largest in their sights.

“America gets a break from being top target on Islamist terrorists’ lists now that France has taken that spot,” a senior French security official darkly joked to TIME. “Our intervention in Mali will make France the primary object of extremist anger and vengeance for a while. Initially that will leave French interests, tourists and other soft targets abroad particularly vulnerable to terror reprisal, awaiting attempts to organize and mount attacks on French territory itself. But our action in Mali makes us enemy No. 1 to both Islamist extremists in the region as well as other allied jihadi who will be aching to avenge their brothers in Africa.”

Wednesday’s kidnapping suggested that France’s U.N.-covered intervention in Mali means terrorist trouble for other nations as well. Evolving reports say an al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of about nine foreigners in Algeria — including, reportedly, Norwegian, British, Irish, French and Japanese nationals. Soon after, the leader of the group, Mokhatar Belmokhatar, said it had taken seven American prisoners in the raid that is also said to have left two French security workers at the BP oil installation dead. Though French officials said they were unable to provide information on the abductions, Hollande used a speech to journalists in the Elysée to stress that halting increasingly violent jihadi activity in the region was why France joined Malian armed forces to battle Islamist militias in the first place. “The decision I took Friday was necessary because if it hadn’t been taken then, it would have been too late to take later,” Hollande said. “Mali would have been conquered by terrorists and its population placed under their force.”

Many specialists agree. Marc Trévidic, France’s leading investigating magistrate on Islamist terrorism, tells TIME that northern Mali and the wider Sahel had become such a vivid arena of jihadi recruitment, combat, terrorist training and control that its threat to African and European security was too great to ignore any longer. Allowing it to develop further, Trévidic argues, would have been tantamount to letting a pre-9/11 Afghanistan flourish in a place just a few hours away from Europe by plane. “We know individuals left France for Mali in order to join Islamists in the north for training, and know people had been tasked with creating recruitment networks for that jihad,” says Trévidic, whose new book, Terrorists: The Seven Pillars of Madness, examines various aspects of radical development and surveillance of budding extremists. “That flow has increased over the months, and it’s clear that stream will eventually reverse itself as trained terror operatives head back for France and Europe. It has to be cut.”

(MORE: France Holds Seven Suspects Thought to Be in a ‘Terrorism Cell’)

The security official agrees but says that because French military action has turned northern Mali and the Sahel into a chaotic battle zone that Islamist militias must fight to hold, the immediate terrorist threat to French soil comes from elsewhere. In addition to soft targets abroad, he says, terrorism plotters are most likely to try to mount retaliatory strikes on France from beyond Africa. “The most likely option is Islamist militias in Mali will ask fellow radicals in France that they’d had previous contact with to get a terror strike moving,” the official says. “Even more probable is that effort will be conceived and overseen by extremists in places like Pakistan or Yemen using contacts in France, or seeking to export operatives to France. Terrorist planners always take the path and use means least likely to be detected and most inclined to succeed. Those probably won’t involve Africa for a while.”

Except for kidnapping activity, as Wednesday’s abductions suggest. For years, militias linked to AQIM have used hostage taking as a manner of raising millions in ransom money that European governments have often paid. Extremists have also used threats to abductees to warn European leaders not to take action against Islamists or help local African governments do so. Prior to launching its Mali intervention, France had long avoided a military option due, in part, to fears for the eight French nationals held captive in Africa. In his comments Wednesday, Hollande said such hesitation was over. “France will not accept that its citizens are held hostage and will do everything it can to secure their freedom as swiftly as possible,” Hollande vowed. “As in Mali, we will not yield to the blackmail of kidnappers.”

The French security official says fully defending against abductions is almost impossible, given the number of companies and tourists Europe sends to Africa each year. Ironically, warding off an attack on French soil may be almost easier. “Anybody with any [Islamist] background, or going anywhere near extremist communities or countries is going to get a lot of very close attention for a while,” he says. “Even a supposed lone wolf won’t have much margin for action, since armed patrols have been increased at so many potential targets. But no defense is entirely efficient — and the Mali operation and fallout from it are looking to continue for a long time.”

MORE: Mali’s Looming War: Will Military Intervention Drive Out the Islamists?

31 comments
raji.alrazi
raji.alrazi

Well....that useless Sarkozy  did whatever that was necessary to put this rebels/terrorists in power in Libya and Mali is one of the after shocks. I understand that dictators like Gaddafi isn't democratically elected but to keep the psycho terrorists in check, strong dictators are pretty useful.

commonsenseprevails
commonsenseprevails

The U.S. learned long ago that you cannot negotiate with terrorists. Unfortunately, the morning reports indicate that 38 hostages may have been killed along with the terrorists. Many were Americans, but again, the entire free world must morn the loss of more innocent lives to this festering cancer of terrorism. We must ban together and cut it out in order to save the body! Religious or non - it doesn't matter. This is a case of good versus pure evil, and this evil must be eliminated all over the globe. My thoughts and prayers are with those hostages, their families, and the soldiers who tried to affect their release!

aurorafisher64
aurorafisher64

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mime
mime

I don't think the 40 Westerners will survive this because these governments say no negotiation. 

Rescue is impossible because they rigged explosives all over that place. 

The kidnappers and hostages will all be dead in a few days. So sad.



AstridCarter
AstridCarter

Stop calling them Radicals there is no radical islam there is one islam and it is inherently evil, ask Salman Rushdie, he will say "Call a spade a spade, stop lying to the people."

sensi
sensi

@AstridCarter FYI Nearly all Malians are Muslims and moderate, their army of moderate Muslims is fighting those "radical islamists" since nearly a year. This said, my guess is that you don't know any single muslim first hand, so you should reach out for some muslim people and see by yourself how "inherently evil" their faith practice really is rather than being a parrot of ignorant amalgamates...

AstridCarter
AstridCarter

@sensi @AstridCarter Did I say ANYTHING about muslims? I have a lot of Turkish MUSLIM friends all of whom are in agreement that Islam is quite radical. Actually the Prime Minister of Turkey just said "Stop staying Moderate Islam there is no Moderate Islam there is just Islam" I do not care about 1.5 billion people I care about this ideology that is constantly being used for violence. 

essobezo
essobezo like.author.displayName 1 Like

@AstridCarter @AstridCarter: You quote Rushdie out of context and twist his words to put forth your own bigoted view of Islam. You insult and alienate 24% of the world's population when you assert that Islam is inherently evil. Rushdie was just lamenting the tendency to avoid any reference to Islam in discussions on the war on terror; he was advocating the use of term "Islamists" over terms like fundamentalists/radicals/extremists when referring to the terrorists. Rushdie was pointing out that this political correctness avoided addressing the central problem/crisis that Islam was facing: that the silent majority of moderate Muslims were being bullied by the violent extremists who had hijacked their religion and were committing heinous acts of terrorism in its name. Rushdie was calling on the silent majority of moderate Muslims to fight back and reclaim Islam for themselves by pursuing proper theological scholarship and pushing back against fundamentalist thinking.   

AstridCarter
AstridCarter

@essobezo You don't have to agree with me, and just because you don't does NOT mean that I am a bigot. You do not know me to make that assumption you are out of line to throw accusations of the sort around. That is careless and undermines you skill in a debate, really I wish you argument was more original actually. When i say Islam is evil, it is bigoted, when I say facisim is evil I am not a bigot...well I think Islam is facist and evil.

essobezo
essobezo

@AstridCarter @essobezo Thx for sharing about Wicca.

AstridCarter
AstridCarter like.author.displayName 1 Like

@essobezo Wicca is just a new birth of paganism, everyone in the world used to be pagan until these monotheistic belief systems spread and took over. Paganism in it's primitive times was about several gods and earth deities. Not all pagans, but several practiced some form of witchcraft not the kind you see in Harry Potter, but simpler incantations. I really love the incantations from Merseburg Germany they are the only ones we have left actually. There is also a group in Iceland who has revived Norse Paganism. To me personally I do not focus on the after life, I focus on nature, so I follow the Wiccan wheel of the year, all hallows eve, yule tide, ostara, etc. but when I do die I believe I will reincarnate. Wicca isn't organized, we really do not want any authoritative figures so everyone has their own interpretations of Icelandic sagas. I do not think the moral teachings are underdeveloped though Gerald Gardner who most of us look up to was against revenge, and warned in his book of shadows that it will come back three times as strong. Coincidentally this idea of revenge is espoused in the Quran. A lot of early practices of medicine were founded in paganism, like growing herb gardens and trying to come up with remedies. They interpreted this as magic when really it's just science. 

essobezo
essobezo

LOL a practicing Wiccan trying to troll an agnostic about Islam. Full disclosure: was raised roman catholic but am now agnostic. What does a practicing Wiccan like you believe in and strive towards and how does the Wiccan faith provide that? All I know about Wiccanism is the popular Christian bigoted view that it is superstition, witchcraft with relatively undeveloped moral teachings (I don't know enough about Wiccans to share that view).

essobezo
essobezo

@AstridCarter @essobezo You are right, I don't know you... that is why I was criticizing your view/opinion as bigoted  and not calling you a bigot (read my post above again). The main point I was making was that you were misrepresenting Rushdie's words to validate your own bigoted view that Islam is inherently evil. I don't want to provoke any more ugly islamophobic rants from you as obviously you feel very passionately about your views on Islam.  We all carry our individual prejudices ingrained by our limited life experiences, environment and culture. I am sure you have good reasons for feeling the way you do about Islam. We all could carry bigoted views towards certain things. Glad you agree that your own view that Islam is evil is bigoted but disappointed you decided to rant some more.  

Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. (Merriam Webster).

I am not calling you a bigot... Only you can decide that.

BTW the war in Iraq was arguably the last time Christian beliefs (of G.W. Bush) caused an actual war / attack against a Muslim population. Islam is going through some sort of adolescent phase like Christianity did at about the same age of the religion

AstridCarter
AstridCarter

@essobezo And I mean come on really..how is that multiculturalist tolerance working out in Saudi Arabia hmm? Egypt?? Not so good actually! VIrtually all Jews have fled, they are now leaving Europe because even when Muslims are a minority they still believe they deserve to be the dominant culture because according to their holy book they are better than us infidels. I wish I could say a majority of Muslims disagree with this, and I'm sure a lot of them do, but when they say this they accept dhimmi status, they are second rate citizens....wow some awesome ideology! Really first class treatment for humans! Why is it that every terrorist act we are talking about now a days is in the name of Islam? When was the last terrorist attack done for Christendom? If Kurt Westergaard, Lars Vilks, South Park and Salman Rushdie insulted Christianity would they have constant death threats over their heads? I would say no. Islam is in the dark ages, if it goes through an enlightened period there may be hope but that means they cannot look up to Muhommed who was a racist barbarian pedophile. I never thought I'd see the day I would fight for Christians because I am a practicing Wiccan, but this intolerance from the Islamic world has gone on too long. I lived in Sweden last year, and the police said that all rapes committed were done by immigrants of non western background who were muslims and guess who the victims were? Swedish girls...these statistics are just scary, and numbers don't lie. 

elcidharth
elcidharth

Mali: The Next Afghanistan?@elcidharth.com

MohammadIzzaterd
MohammadIzzaterd

Excuse me, Mr. Crumley, I am offended.  As you are well aware, jihad is benevolent, like taking your kids to school ontime or going to the gym, just ask CAIR! and see the #myjihad movement on twitter.  You throw around the word jihad like it means holy war or something violent.  That is ridiculous!  Just ask CAIR, they will straighten you out.

mattskiba25
mattskiba25

First I would like to say, I am jewish. Second, I am issuing orders to France: kill your goy immediately! I AM ORDERING YOU TO CULL YOUR HERD! There are too many of you. The G-d promised the planet earth to the jewish tribe. WE ARE THE CHOSEN ONES! WE SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH so that we can repair and heal it because the G-d couldn't do it without us according (to the doctrine of Tikkun Olam.) And we are having extreme difficulty healing the universe with all your goy bodies in the way, crowding our healing arm and leg movements. G-d said there is only enough gold in earth's soil for our tribe. So sorry. We didn't make the rules. There is nothing we can do to change it even if we wanted to. The G-d has decreed it. It is the God's plan! Go die in war and terror plots immediately! 

commonsenseprevails
commonsenseprevails

@mattskiba25 

You, sir, sound as Jewish as Bjourn Bjourne of Scandanavia! And I mean no offense to Scandanavia - just making a point. Please spare me your inciting words of hatred - you will not fool me into thinking that you are Jewish. In fact, neither of us are. Our differernces begin where you attempt to amplify hatred, and I uphold the values of peace, understanding, compassion and tolerance. I invite you to step away from the dark side and feel the goodness in love.

"All you need is love" _ John Lennon

essobezo
essobezo like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mattskiba25 In French accent: "I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries."

sensi
sensi

Wishful thinking from the TIME I guess, they already decided France culture dead among other oriented french-hating/bashing drivels.

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

Al Qaeda again. I thought they wiped em out. I like the reference to armed Islamist occupiers of Mali village as opposed to the French who are neither armed nor occupiers.The Malian army is a nice touch too. They would the ones who arrested their beloved president before the French invaded  Mali has a lot of minerals, Iraq, Afghanistan,Libya also rich. Sudan, Rwanda dirt poor get lost. Its called winning their hearts and minds.Wake up it is what it is. Money talks. Bringing the democracy and western way of life to the heathens one way or the other

sensi
sensi

@FredFlintsone You have spammed your slandering and ignorant drivel all over the online press. Hopefully you have an interest in doing so... Once again may I remind you that they were actually peacekeepers in your "Rwanda dirt poor get lost"? What a garbage.

jambouburgess
jambouburgess like.author.displayName 1 Like

The malian prez asked for the french help.....so how does that make them occupiers?

commonsenseprevails
commonsenseprevails

Maybe the free world will finally understand that terrorism knows no bounds or boundaries. They are willing to sacrifice innocents of any and all nationalities - even their own people - in their quest for world dominance and adherence to their philosophies! Until all countries are committed to ridding themselves of this scourge and cancer, no one will be completely safe! Hunt them down! Send in the drones!

mrmsjb12
mrmsjb12

WELLthere goes the Eiffel Tower