The North African threat to Europe
long after the French offensive against African jihadists in Mali got underway, a leader of one of the offshoots of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) declared that his organization would “strike at the heart of France.” AQIM attacked French embassies and most recently a gas facility in Algeria, where it took hostages. But was it ready to move its war against the West to the territories of the European states as well and thus pose a real threat to their security?
The fact is that for some time European leaders have been looking at the growth of al-Qaida in North Africa with real concern. After Islamist extremists took control of northern Mali last year, converting it into a terrorist sanctuary, EU heads of state met in Oct. 2012, and issued a statement characterizing the crisis in Mali as “an immediate threat” to Europe itself. French President Francois Hollande said he believed that AQIM was planning to use Mali as a launching pad for an attack on French soil. This month German Chancellor Angela Merkel added her voice to this view of the crisis in Mali, saying that “terrorism in Mali, or in the north of Mali, is a threat not just to Africa but also to Europe.”
French intelligence experts have traced the rise of jihadist forces in Mali and the rest of North Africa. Apparently, Pakistani and Afghan preachers began arriving in 2002-3 in Mali and Niger along with international jihadists who fled Afghanistan after the U.S. intervention drove them out. In other words, the rise of jihadist elements in these African countries was not just a local phenomenon, but rather linked to the original al-Qaida network.
By 2007, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was formed from an extremist offshoot of the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) that had fought in the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. In March 2012, jihadist forces took over the northern two-thirds of Mali, converting it into a new African Afghanistan. Since 2009, the growing jihadi presence in West Africa spilled over into Mali’s neighbor, Niger, which also happens to be the sixth largest producer of uranium ore in the world.
The idea of launching attacks against the West was already proposed by the forerunners of AQIM. On Dec. 24, 1994, four terrorists from the GIA hijacked an Air France airbus that took off from Algiers and was bound for Paris. In what looked like a rehearsal for 9/11 (there was no connection between the two events) their plan was to use the French aircraft as a missile and crash it into the Eiffel Tower with all the passengers on board. French gendarme stormed the aircraft in Marseilles and eliminated the GIA team. In 1995, GIA killed eight people and injured 100 in a bomb attack on the Paris Metro.
The idea that radical Islamic organizations seek to target the West should not come as a surprise. It has been a prevalent theme in their writings, especially in the Muslim Brotherhood from which many of the leaders of al-Qaida emerged. Hassan al-Bana, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood wrote that after the establishment of the Islamic state in Egypt, the struggle against the West must continue: “We will not stop at this point, but will pursue this evil force to its own lands, invade its Western heartland …” In the same way, Muhammad Akef, the former Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood declared in 2004 his “complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America.” Western apologists often ignore these hard-line positions, but they undoubtedly influenced the political education of younger generations of jihadists, who later operationalized them.
The U.S. has not seen the new North African threat as intensely as the Europeans. The New York Times ran a story on Jan. 18 entitled “U.S. Sees Hazy Threat from Mali Militants.” The newspaper reported that during Congressional testimony last June a State Department official played down the threat from what was happening in Mali, saying that AQIM “has not threatened to attack the U.S. homeland.” Another view, coming out of the Pentagon, points to the role of AQIM in the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put forward a more urgent view of recent developments in North Africa during testimony before Congressional committees on Jan. 23 when she said: “… the instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we just saw last week in Algeria.”
That a new region-wide threat is emerging was underscored by the report by Algeria’s prime minister, Abdelmalik Sellal, who said that the seizure of hostages at the Algerian gas plant appears to have been conducted by terrorists who crossed into Algeria from Northern Mali. There are also indications now that this operation received logistical support from Islamist militias in eastern Libya. It is only a short leap from the emergence of a new region-wide al-Qaida infrastructure in North Africa, that crosses international borders, to a direct threat to Europe itself. Apparently, France already understands that this is what is at stake, but it is not fully appreciated that widely.
The difficult point that Western analysts just do not understand is the blind hatred of the West as a whole among all the jihadist organizations, associated with al-Qaida. Many times in Europe it is hoped that by taking a more critical position against Israel, European diplomats can lower the flames of radical Islamic rage against them. But these policies simply don’t work because the jihadists’ readiness to attack the West comes from a desire to eradicate Western civilization and not from the pronouncements of Catherine Ashton or any other senior European official either for or against Israel.