Terror's Televangelists Don't Scare Paris

  • Share
  • Read Later
When President Bush spoke on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he warned Americans to take very seriously the extravagant threats conveyed in al-Qaeda's steady output of infomercials. Over in France, which was singled out for some pretty threatening trashtalking in al-Qaeda's own 9/11 anniversary broadcast, counterterrorism officials see the movement's stepped up video campaign as a sign that Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri fear they may be becoming irrelevant.

Zawahiri devoted a substantial portion of the anniversary tape to praising al-Qaeda's "blessed union" with the radical Algerian Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and singled France out as its target. Zawahiri pledged the new partnership would become "a bone in the throats of the American and French crusaders," and urged supporters to target Arab states — including Algeria — that have battled terrorism alongside Washington, London, and Paris. "Crush the pillars of the crusader alliance" Zawahiri intoned, "and strike fear in the hearts of the traitors and apostate sons of France".

But rather than heed President Bush's urging to take al-Qaeda at its word, French officials saw no new danger in their starring role in Zawahiri's rant. "The alliance with the GSPC isn't new, in that the group pledged its loyalty and assistance to Zarqawi back in March of 2005," said one senior French counter-terror official, referring to the Qaeda In Iraq leader, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, killed in April. "Frankly, we still view any networks or projects Zarqawi's wider group may have begun before he was killed as more immediately dangerous than a new partnership with al Qaeda. Just what kind of strings Zawahiri can pull in hiding probably don't compare to the reach Zarqawi and his group had — and may still command."

Nor was the latest tape the first time Zawahiri had singled out France. "Zawahiri has threatened France by name previously — notably in citing the law banning female Muslim students from wearing headscarves in public school," says independent terror expert Roland Jacquard of a February, 2004 recording. "About the only response that produced was from leaders of the Muslim community — most of whom who oppose that law — telling extremists and foreign Muslims to mind their own business." (Zawahiri got a similar response earlier this year when he publicly scolded Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas movement for contesting parliamentary elections.)

Says the French official, "We looked at Zarqawi's message this time and mostly thought, ‘If that's the best he's got, he's starting to lose it.‘ "

The nagging reality for the fugitive Qaeda leaders is that even in the battle for the hearts, minds and attention of Muslims angry at the West, they may be being eclipsed by events. "As we saw during the Lebanon crisis with its support of Hezbollah — Shi'ites [that] the al-Qaeda has traditionally loathed as heathen — the traditional al-Qaeda leadership looks as though it's chasing after conflicts, and struggling to assert its role as an influence and reference in the war to advance Islam in the world," Jacquard says. "Before that it looked both late and calculating in supporting Hamas. At least by appearance, traditional al-Qaeda leaders at times look frantic trying to get back to center stage."

Still, even though Bin Laden and Zawahiri may no longer speak for a large-scale tight-knit global web of operatives carrying out orders from the center, their tapes can serve as encouragement for localized self-starter cells. "Plotting radicals don't need membership cards or secret handshakes to do clandestine work," the French official says. "What they need is the feeling of association and direction, and at times assistance or orders from above. We've broken a few operational cells nearing attacks whose links and affiliations with the GSPC were fairly remote. But that didn't prevent them from moving ahead, and doing so in the GSPC name." In that sense, Zawahiri and his videos do at least provide small-time local terrorists with the illusion of combative al Qaeda leaders that can inspire them to struggle on.