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France, US top al Qaeda's list of Western targets

An analysis by a private US intelligence firm of jihadist messages released by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2013 shows that France ranked second as the main Western focus of the group’s jihadist propaganda, after the US.


France ranked second as a Western target of interest for AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), according to an analysis of jihadist messages released by al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch in 2013.

In a study of more than 45 messages this year by the terror group, a private US intelligence firm found the US to be the number one Western target of interest for AQAP, followed by France.

“AQAP's messaging focus provides insights into where its operational focus is now and where it is headed,” said a statement released by IntelCenter, a US-based intelligence firm, on Monday. “This does not mean other Western countries would not be considered but rather sheds light on what AQAP has spent the most time and energy publicly discussing and building a case for.”

The latest finding came as the US extended the closures of some of its diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa in response to intelligence interceptions linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, according to US lawmakers briefed on the latest security threat.

In an interview with ABC’s “This Week” show, Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the US “received information that high-level people from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack".

France has announced that its embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa will remain closed Sunday and Monday.

In its findings released Monday, the IntelCenter noted that the greatest focus of AQAP’s messaging in 2013 as of August is the US. “Yemen comes in second with France in third. Mali is fourth. Saudi Arabia tied with the UK for fifth, however, the references to Saudi Arabia are more significant than those for the UK,” the statement noted.

‘The main reason for this is Mali’

Formed in 2008 following a February 2006 jail break in Yemen in which many senior terror suspects escaped, AQAP is among the most prolific al Qaeda branches on jihadist forums.

One of the group’s senior figures, US-born Anwar al-Awlaki, is believed to have inspired several terror plots against Western interests – including the Christmas Day 2009 plot to bomb an airliner over Detroit and a deadly November 2009 shooting at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, which killed 13 people.

Awlaki was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Another senior AQAP figure, Saeed al-Shihri, was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen’s Saadah province, according to an al Qaeda statement released last month.

While the US has long topped al Qaeda’s stated list of targets or enemies, France’s position on the AQAP media radar follows the January launch of the French military operation in Mali.

“The main reason for this is Mali,” said Anne Giudicelli, founder of the Paris-based political and security risk consultancy Terrorisc. “The goal of the French intervention was to fight jihadists in northern Mali, that’s the reason France was distinguished and identified by al Qaeda as an enemy.”

AQAP trains its sights on the Sahel

Northern Mali lies in the Sahel – the remote, lawless buffer zone between the Sahara desert and the African savannah – where al Qaeda’s North African branch AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) operates.

Since the launch of the military intervention in Mali, AQIM has issued a number of messages calling on adherents to attack French interests. In a message posted on YouTube in May AQIM militant Abou Obeida Youssef Al-Annabi said the “crusade” led by France in Mali makes its interests “legitimate targets.”

In many ways, France is an obvious target for AQIM, which operates in a region that includes a number of former French colonies, including Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.

AQAP, in contrast, is based in Yemen and has traditionally trained its sights on US interests, as well as neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

But the high-profile nature of the French intervention in Mali has attracted the interest – and wrath – of al Qaeda branches outside the Sahel area.

In a message released in February, for instance, AQAP compared the French intervention in Mali to what it called the "Zionist occupation of Palestine". The AQAP statement, which was posted on jihadist forums, noted that supporting Muslims in Mali was "a duty for every able Muslim, to offer himself or his money, each according to his ability."

“France is definitely the stated enemy of AQIM, but there also exists a form of global solidarity between al Qaeda branches, so it’s logical that AQAP is backing AQIM,” said Giudicelli.

While the US has closed a number of its diplomatic posts based on the latest AQAP intercepts, France has so far only shut its embassy in the Yemeni capital.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Mathieu Guidère, a professor at Université Toulouse II and an expert on Islamic terrorism, said US security measures were tightened following a worldwide audit of US diplomatic posts after the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, which killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

“France has not carried out an audit of its diplomatic missions as the US has, thus it has merely given instructions to step up security at its embassies,” said Guidere. “France is not under the same degree of threat as the US, even though the military intervention in Mali has focused the attention of jihadist networks from around the world (on France)”.

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