Osama bin Laden’s threat to kill several French hostages in Niger if Paris does not immediately withdraw its troops from Afghanistan is the latest in al Qaeda’s full court offensive to intimidate our European allies into abandoning the NATO mission in South Asia. The terrorist network has made a spate of attempts this winter to carry out a mass casualty attack in a European capital that supports the war to force withdrawals from the NATO mission. The good news is that al Qaeda’s effort is failing. Despite intense war weariness across the Atlantic, the allies are holding firm. But it is equally true that Europe has not yet been fully tested by a terror attack that succeeds.
Bin Laden’s message on Friday warned President Nicolas Sarkozy that the fate of “your prisoners in the hands of our brothers is linked to the withdrawal of your soldiers from our country.” If France does not withdraw, this is a “green light to kill your prisoners.” Bin Laden says France is behaving as a tool of America in Afghanistan, where France has 3,750 soldiers in Task Force Lafayette. It is the fourth-largest contributor of troops to the Afghan mission. France has five hostages held by al Qaeda in Niger and two held in Afghanistan probably by the Taliban.
Al Qaeda’s franchise in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has already killed French and other European hostages there, so bin Laden’s threats have to be taken seriously. Bin Laden has threatened France before for its role in Afghanistan but says now that “its debt and budget deficit” means it must withdraw sooner rather than later.
We can expect al Qaeda to keep trying to see if a big enough successful attack in Europe can shake its unity.
Al Qaeda seems to have a hand in two attempts to terrorize our allies in Scandinavia this winter. On December 11, an Iraqi suicide bomber prematurely set off his six pipe bombs filled with ball bearings and his backpack filled with nails and explosives before he entered a shopping mall on Stockholm’s busiest street. The investigation has indicated that 28-year-old Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly probably had at least one accomplice who escaped the crime scene and that Abdaly was trained in Iraq by al Qaeda’s franchise there, the Islamic State of Iraq. He had traveled secretly several times to Iraq in the last few years. His farewell martyrdom statement called for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, where Sweden has 500 troops. Had Abdaly succeeded in getting his bomb into the mall, there would have been carnage.
At the end of the month Swedish and Danish police arrested four Swedish Muslims planning an attack for New Year’s Day on the Copenhagen offices of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, which published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Three of the four had driven from Sweden into Denmark armed with a machine gun with silencer and a pistol. Their plan was to seize the building, take hostages (they had plastic strips to tie them up), and then kill them in a protracted siege. At least two of the three in the vehicle had been trained in terror camps in Pakistan.
This plot is almost identical to an al Qaeda plan in 2009 to attack the same newspaper office with armed terrorists to create a Mumbai-style terror outrage. That plot was foiled when the FBI arrested an American citizen of Pakistani origin, David Headley, who had conducted three years of reconnaissance for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai and several trips to prepare the planned attack in Copenhagen set for December 2009 during the climate change summit talks. Aside from the shock of a hostage barricade shootout in the Danish capital, al Qaeda clearly hopes a spectacular attack will convince Danes to get out of Afghanistan, where they have 750 troops fighting in Helmand province.
Yet despite these repeated attempts, the allies have held firm in Afghanistan. Only one European country, the Netherlands, has pulled out its combat troops, and it is considering sending trainers to Afghanistan to replace them. Canada has committed to pulling its more than 2,800 troops out this year but also has promised to replace them with badly needed trainers for the Afghan army.
The NATO-led mission in Afghanistan now has almost 50 countries participating, making it one of the largest coalition forces in history. Despite more than nine years of fighting and threats from bin Laden, it has hung together remarkably well. Many aspects of the war in Afghanistan may have gone poorly, but alliance cohesion is not one of them. Compared to Iraq, where the much smaller alliance dissipated quickly when the war went sour, NATO has held together remarkably well in the Hindu Kush.
But we can expect al Qaeda to keep trying to see if a big enough successful attack in Europe can shake its unity. In Madrid in 2004 a major attack that killed or wounded more than 2,000 Spaniards drove the country out of Iraq almost immediately. That is al Qaeda’s role model for 2011, a massive trauma that changes alliance cohesion. Our counterterrorist effort must remain vigilant.
Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.