French security officials scrambled Tuesday to make sense of a tip from an unknown group that led police to five sticks of dynamite planted in the bathroom of a packed Paris department store. Authorities found what are being described as "old" dynamite in the water tank of a toilet all inoperable due to the lack of a detonation device. But investigator were also perplexed by the group claiming responsibility for sending the warning a previously unknown organization calling itself the Afghan Revolutionary Front. "It's hard to say much concrete right now, because we're starting from a pretty blank page," said one French counter-terrorism official shortly after police discovered the dynamite left in the Printemps department store in central Paris late Tuesday morning. "The investigation should tell us a lot, but it's just getting underway."
"What's troubling in this is that whoever is responsible managed to place a significant volume of explosives in one of the places under the most intense police surveillance, and when France's terror alert is high for the holidays," notes independent terror expert Roland Jacquard. "Meanwhile, in pulling that off, these people also took the enormous risk of planting the makings of a strong bomb knowing full and well it would never go off without a detonator. The materials used and risks taken are excessively disproportional to the goal of sending a mere warning which is why intelligence and police forces will be working fast to try and find out who was behind all this." (See the Top 10 Underreported Stories of 2008.)
The bomb alert was sent to news agency Agence France Presse Tuesday, providing exact instructions to locate the explosives in a third floor bathroom of the famous Paris department store. Once those explosives had been removed from the premises, police continued combing the store for what the warning letter had said were other bombs left in one of Paris' favorite Christmas shopping venues.
Pointing to the warning and the lack of detonator, French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie sought to calm rattled Parisian by noting "the device wasn't intended to explode." However, the Afghan Revolutionary Front said in its note that it was giving French President Nicolas Sarkozy until the end of February to withdraw all of France's nearly 3,000 troops from Afghanistan. Should France fail to do that, the group threatened, "we'll move again into action in your big capitalist stores, but without giving you warning this time." The message ended with the cry of "Long live free Afghanistan."
French authorities say they are taking the threat of additional plots seriously and noted it was not the first time France's role in Afghanistan had drawn retaliatory threats of violence. But whereas earlier ones have come directly from the Taliban or from their allies in the al Qaeda leadership, Tuesday's action struck some officials as significantly off-key in both its language, and its effort to simulate a terror attack without claiming any victims. "Islamist terrorists never give warnings before attacks, but instead let their leaders point to the innocent lives lost in strikes as their warning for the next time," says Jacquard. "Islamists also speak in lofty, glorified terms of waging holy battle and doing God's will. They've never employed secular political terms like 'revolutionary' and 'capitalist' the way this group has. If this group is indeed focused on the struggle in Afghanistan, it doesn't seem to be doing so from an Islamist perspective."
Given the various details of Tuesday's bomb alert that clash with established jihadist habit, Jacquard and other specialists offer initial speculation the real culprits behind the Printemps scare are political extremists possibly from the ranks of Europe's growing anarchist movements. Still, though he suspects whoever was behind the action may have sought to send investigators down a false trail with the Afghanistan association, Jacquard warns against writing the authors off as sinister pranksters or flakes.