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?