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‘Withdraw your forces,’ al Qaeda warns France

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-11-19

A purported message by Abdelmalek Droukdel, head of al Qaeda's North Africa branch, said the fate of French hostages depends on Paris talking to Osama bin Laden and withdrawing from Afghanistan. France has rejected the ultimatum.

The head of al Qaeda’s North African branch has released a purported audiotape saying France would have to negotiate personally with Osama bin Laden to secure the release of French hostages seized in Niger and that their safety hinged on the withdrawal of French troops in Afghanistan.

In a purported audiotape aired on the Arabic Al Jazeera TV station late Thursday, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said the lives of five French nationals captured in a uranium mining town in the northern African nation of Niger in September depended on a French troop pullout in Afghanistan.

"If you don't stop intervening in our affairs and the oppression of Muslim people, and if you want peace for your citizens that we hold hostage, you must withdraw your forces from Afghanistan as soon possible according to a set timetable that you will announce publicly,” said the message.

A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said France was trying to establish the authenticity of the tape.

In a statement released Friday, French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said French policy would not be dictated by outsiders.

The latest message came days after French Defense Minister Alain Juppe told a French radio station that France was in contact with al Qaeda kidnappers holding the hostages, who are employees of French companies Areva and Vinci.

An opportunist message aimed at NATO

Zone of influence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Droukdel’s purported message came just as NATO members gathered in Lisbon for a summit focused on Afghanistan Friday. It was a sign that the leader of al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, who he is believed to be based in the remote Sahel region between the Sahara desert and the African savannah, was monitoring the events in Europe.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 Friday, Mathieu Guidere, a leading expert on North African radical groups, said the latest message provided little detail on the state of hostages. The aim of the message, according to Guidere was to use the hostages as a negotiating chip.

“For me, it’s an opportunistic message because it is issued on the day of the NATO summit in Lisbon, so Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are trying to interfere in NATO’s discussions about the strategy in Afghanistan,” said Guidere.

Osama bin Laden to ‘personally oversee’ hostage negotiations

The latest message came weeks after bin Laden issued his first message targeting France in retaliation for the country’s “policies regarding Muslims,” including the burqa ban and the presence of French troops in Afghanistan.

According to a translation of the taped message, Droukdel - who uses the nom de guerre - Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, also said any talks over the hostages would be personally overseen by bin Laden. (Click here for more on AQIM’s key figures.)

In recent weeks, there have been signs of intensifying links between al Qaeda’s North African branch and what counter-terror experts call “al Qaeda central command” referring to senior al Qaeda leaders such as bin Laden who are believed to be based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after bin Laden issued his first message threatening France last month, Guidere said the message showed that “AQIM is building the same ideology and modus operandi as al Qaeda central command.”

AQIM was born out of the remnants of Algerian Islamist groups that waged a bloody insurgency against the Algerian security services in the 1990s. In 2006, the Algerian radical group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French acronym GSPC) officially declared its merger with al Qaeda to become the terror group’s North African affiliate.

AQIM is loosely comprised of a cluster of “katibas” of brigades, many of them autonomously funded and run.

Experts say AQIM northern katiba is headed by Abdelmalek Droukdel, who is believed to be in Algeria.

Date created : 2010-11-19

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