Why Is Osama bin Laden Going After the French?

November 3, 2010 |
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Yesterday, in an audio recording released to Qatar-based news station Al Jazeera, al Qaeda Central leader Osama bin Laden for the first time singled out France as a target of attack, saying, "The equation is very clear and simple: as you kill, you will be killed; as you take others hostages, you will be taken hostages; as you waste our security we will waste your security."

Excoriating France for its participation in "Bush's loathed war" in Afghanistan (where France has around 3,750 troops in combat, training, and support roles) and its ban on full-body covering garments such as the burqa and niqab last month, bin Laden also claimed some manner of credit for the kidnapping last month of five French and two non-French nuclear energy workers in Niger by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He noted, "The taking of your experts in Niger as hostages, while they were being protected by your proxy [agent] there, is a reaction to the injustice you are practicing against our Muslim nation." He also attacked France for its "intervention" in North and West Africa, and the taking of wealth from Muslim nations.

While statements from al Qaeda Central leaders and affiliates have in the past singled out France, this statement marks a distinct escalation in rhetoric, one that has added credibility in the wake of nearly a month of warnings about possible terrorist attacks in Europe, including France. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner dismissed bin Laden's threats, calling them "opportunism," though Kouchner's spokesman subsequently added that the tape "only confirms the reality of the terrorist threat" to France. (Defense Minister Herve Morin told Agence France-Pressetoday that France would begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in 2011, but said that date was linked to NATO timelines and not bin Laden's tape.)

But why is bin Laden taking on the French now?

For one thing, the mention of these controversial headlines -- the bans and the kidnappings -- shows that bin Laden is not only alive and kicking, but attuned to the news cycle. More specifically, this latest tape could be an attempt to stir up the French public over the already unpopular war in Afghanistan while simultaneously preying on fear among French and other European Muslims about restrictions on their religious practice, even if very few French Muslims actually wear the garment in question.

In a broad sense, though, this kind of statement fits neatly into one of al Qaeda Central's historical goals: fusing anger at Western governments for occupation in Muslim countries with perceived slights against Muslims everywhere. In doing so, the organization justifies its attacks against Western countries' or their allies, on the grounds that they have attacked the "Muslim nation" (umma in the original Arabic) as bin Laden referred to it. Bin Laden made the connection between restrictions on Muslim freedoms and anti-occupation violence explicit, saying, "If you unjustly thought that it is your right to prevent free Muslim women from wearing the face veil, is it not our right to expel your invading men and cut their necks?"

According to my New America Foundation colleague and al Qaeda expert Brian Fishman, "Al Qaeda has always tried to conflate two phenomena that other jihadis have historically seen as distinct: the direct occupation of Muslim countries by 'Infidels' and the oppression of Muslims in the Muslim world or in the West. By doing this, al Qaeda hopes to leverage popular anger and commonly accepted religious justifications for armed opposition to generate support for its terrorist attacks against the West."

Bin Laden's remarks demonstrate this conflation, equating France's military involvement in Afghanistan with restrictions on Muslim religious expression in public, France's strong business and political interests in Africa, support for local regimes, and recent (if limited) armed intervention in Mali.

There are also several other ways to read bin Laden's remarks. While experts are divided over the seriousness of the reports of terrorist threats to Europe, there is little doubt that increasing numbers of European Muslims, both those of immigrant origin and converts, have been traveling to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to receive training in militant camps and possibly fight international forces.

Bin Laden could be trying to convince small groups of radicalized, trained Muslims to go back to their own countries, and wage attacks. Indeed, al Qaeda has done this before, notably with Afghan-born American citizen Najibullah Zazi, who originally traveled abroad to fight American forces in Afghanistan, only to be convinced by al Qaeda leaders to return home to plan bombings against the New York subway system.

Another possible explanation for bin Laden's "claiming" of the Niger kidnapping operation is more of an internal issue. Al Qaeda Central may be attempting to take some rhetorical control over its fairly weak, nebulous North African affiliate, AQIM. Despite some claims from experts, there is little to no evidence of coordination or even communication between al Qaeda Central and AQIM, an organization that attacks Algerian and Sahelian security forces while runing smuggling, drug protection, and kidnapping-for-ransom operations. By placing his stamp of approval on a kidnapping almost certainly motivated more by monetary than religious or defensive concerns, bin Laden is trying to show (and exaggerate) al Qaeda's reach, indicating an omnipresence that is illusory at best.

But ultimately, this tape is about al Qaeda's raison d'être, so to speak. For al Qaeda to exist, it must always have enemies to fight, and an umma to protect. And as long as bin Laden is alive, he will continue to seek out new adversaries and areas of operation, in order to attract new recruits, funds, and allies to his cause.