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N. African and Chechen rebels threaten France with terrorism

by Strategic Forecasting Friday, Mar. 19, 2004 at 11:06 PM
analysis@stratfor.com

The letter raises the possibility that France could be the site of the next March 11- style bombing. Moreover, it raises the troubling prospect for Paris that the interests of North African and Chechen militants might be converging in France -- possibly under some kind of al Qaeda banner.



Summary

French authorities are taking seriously a letter that was faxed to a Parisian newspaper March 16 threatening attacks inside France and against French interests abroad. Early indications point to a possible link with Chechen guerrillas and raise questions about other potential connections.

Analysis

A letter faxed to several French newspapers March 16 warned of possible attacks in the country and against French interests abroad by Islamist extremists. The letter threatens to "plunge France into terror and remorse and spill blood outside its frontiers," said the deputy editor of Le Parisien, which received a copy of the letter. French intelligence services are analyzing the communique.

Sources close to the French government tell Stratfor that security officials are taking the threat very seriously, in part due to the letter's content. Public transportation systems in particular are on full alert, and public warnings have been issued for people to take extra care. The national threat level has been raised from orange to red, the second-highest of four levels.

Sources note that the two-page fax resembles a recent taped warning from al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, which was broadcast Feb. 24 by Arabic television channel Al- Arabiya. In the tape, al-Zawahiri railed against the recently passed French ban on religious symbols in public schools, including the Muslim hijab (headscarf), calling the measure "a new sign of the Crusader hatred which Westerners harbor against Muslims while they boast of freedom, democracy and human rights."

The ban has been extremely unpopular in the Muslim world and religious leaders of various stripes have criticized it widely. Islamist militant groups needing to generate fresh public support at home could calculate that a retaliatory strike against France would help do that -- and build on a show of power in neighboring Spain.

It is too early to say definitively who was behind the threat and if they are actually serious, but the letter raises the possibility that France could be the site of the next March 11- style bombing. Moreover, it raises the troubling prospect for Paris that the interests of North African and Chechen militants might be converging in France -- possibly under some kind of al Qaeda banner.

The justice and interior ministries said the letter stated it was sent "on behalf of the servants of Allah, the powerful and wise," and was signed by a group calling itself the Movsar Barayev Commando. Barayev was a militant leader who led the October 2002 hostage-taking in a Moscow theater. He was killed along with other militants and many of the hostages during the Russian rescue effort. Barayev had two brothers, also militant leaders: One was killed in Chechnya, but the other is thought to be still at large.

Stratfor sources note that French intelligence might have found evidence linking Chechen Islamist militants to the threat and that local militants, who at one time fought in Chechnya against Russia, might be involved. French intelligence also postulates that Chechen, North African and local Islamists have joined forces in France. This would not be much of a leap: In late 2002, French security broke up a cell of Algerian and Moroccan militants in and around Paris that had been planning attacks against Russian assets in France. The suspects reportedly trained with Chechens in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and wanted to avenge the deaths of people killed fighting alongside Chechen separatist rebels, according to the French Interior Ministry.

There are other factors that support a possible Chechen/Islamist/local militant connection. The French Chechen community actively raises funds to support Chechen fighters -- many of whom are mercenaries. In light of the global crackdown on militant financing, there are indications that Chechen rebels have fallen on hard times. An attack in France by Chechen militants would raise their profile in the Middle East, pushing them to the forefront of the pan-Islamist struggle, which is also thought to be an ambition of Chechen militants. This, in turn, could open new sources of financial support for the fight against Moscow.

There are other circumstantial connections as well. Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans make up a large percentage of the French Muslim population, and militants from these countries reportedly have fought in Chechnya. Chechens and North Africans also trained together over several years at al Qaeda-run training camps in Afghanistan. Such connections could result in cooperation elsewhere, such as in France -- or Spain. At the least, these militants could be seeking to employ Chechen methods in Europe.

A Chechen connection would be extremely worrying for Paris. It would be hard to find a group with more expertise with sophisticated explosives and other types of militant attacks. Those attacks have included bold strikes such as the Moscow theater hostage-taking and numerous bombings of the Russian public transportation system, including the Moscow metro and trains in southern Russia. Since the beginning of their campaign in 1994, Chechens have tended to avoid the use of suicide bombers -- a tactic that they adopted only recently.

In that respect, Chechen attacks against Russian trains resemble the Madrid bombings more than attacks by other Islamists, down to the detail of explosives-stuffed backpacks left in trains. That similarity between Russia and Madrid raises another possibility - - also based purely on circumstantial evidence: The new threat in France could be connected to the Madrid bombing.

Coincidentally -- or perhaps not -- a Frenchman who converted to Islam named David Courtailler will go on trial beginning March 17 in Paris for links to Islamist extremists. According to a March 16 report from Reuters, Courtailler met in the past with a key suspect in the Madrid bombings, Jamal Zougam, during a visit to a mosque in Madrid.

Finally, a connection between the March 16 letter and the recent threats by a previously unknown group calling itself AZF to bomb the French rail system cannot be ruled out. That mystery has not been solved -- and while security forces had determined that Chechens were not at the top of the list of suspects, they might be rethinking that conclusion.

-------------------------

Decision-makers around the world who rely on Stratfor for daily intelligence briefs and in-depth analyses and forecasts on a wide range of international security, political and economic affairs.

Time rated Stratfor as the "Best Intelligence Website" in 2003.

Barron's called Stratfor a "quasi-CIA".
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