“We are at war with al-Qaida,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday, a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the death of 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau. The killers will “not go unpunished,” Sarkozy said in unusually strong language, given France’s habit of employing quiet cooperation with its regional allies—Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria—in which the al-Qaida franchise was spawned amid an Islamist insurgency.
So, there is an obvious question of course. Um, where were you guys for the better part of this past decade?
The French, under the previous leadership, went out of their way to obstruct American anti-terrorism efforts. Mostly, this was secondary to the disagreement over Iraq. But even with issues ranging from Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia, the French and Americans have rarely been on the same page.
Now, the simple killing of an elderly French humanitarian worker has awoken the fear of the French public. It is quite ironic…many more French actually died on 9/11 (about 30, according to different reports), but they saw no reason to act at that time.
It is a very European reaction; when confronted, back away. Spain did something similar. When they were attacked by multiple bomb attacks on their train system by Al Qaeda on 3/11/2004, 191 people in Madrid died with thousands injured. But ultimately more significant, it was the day before their national elections; it was a clear political message. And Al Qaeda achieved all their goals in that incident: they forced a change in the Spanish government, and forced the Spanish military to pull out of Iraq, where at the time they were the third largest member of the international force. Spain has since maintained a low profile as videos by the al-Qaida franchise regularly call for the conquest of “al-Andalus”—a reference to the period of Muslim rule of much of Spain in medieval times.
France, in turn, has been quite lucky. France is a potential hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. The French have a huge Arab population, one of the largest in Europe. Their Arab minority is also poor, uneducated, and therefore, quite pliable to outside rhetoric. They have long been blind to the threat. It is frankly surprising that they have not had more home grown terror attacks before now, especially with their strong antimuslim laws such as banning burqas.
How these events will affect the global war on terror (or whatever the Obama Administration wants to call it today) is uncertain. The French are still unlikely to aid us in any broad attack on terrorist interests. However, the French do have intelligence assets, especially in the Middle East and Africa, which could be quite beneficial if used correctly. But the French move against terror groups in North Africa can only be thought of as a sign of progress, even though it comes on the heels of a tragedy.