Terrorism spreads to the fashion capital

Source :SIFY
Author :SIFY
Last Updated: Thu, Sep 23rd, 2010, 11:33:40hrs
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Terrorism spreads to the fashion capital
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STRONG>Claude Arpi

It was a strange experience.

Last week, I was changing trains at a metro station in Paris when, suddenly, three riot policemen ran by. Seconds later, just as I reached the platform, the policemen asked the crowd to immediately leave the station.

It was about 5:30 pm and the Opera station was crowded with people returning home after work.

The police refused to give any explanation, the platform was just closed.

Only a few days later did the French Home Minister announce that, on that particular day, the French intelligence agencies had been expecting a terrorist attack in Paris.

Since then, France has been blanketed under a Red Alert scheme code-named Plan Vigipirate which had been activated only a few times since its creation in 1991.

On the same day, terrorists struck a blow to France in the far-away African state of Niger. Five French nationals and two of their African colleagues were kidnapped. Two of the French worked for the French nuclear energy firm Areva (which will soon operate two plants in Maharashtra) and the other three for French construction company Vinci.

All five were working at the uranium mining site in North Niger in a place called Arlit. Areva gets most of its supply of uranium from the mines of Arlit and Imouraren in Niger, which incidentally is the world's sixth largest producer of the radioactive heavy metal.

Already worried by the possibility of a terrorist attack in France, the French authorities immediately suspected the AQIM (Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb) previously known as the Safalist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French initials GSPC).

This Islamist militia dreams of overthrowing the Algerian government and instituting an Islamic State. The AQIM has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US Department of State and the European Union.

They are led by Abu Musab Abdel Wadud, the Bin Laden of the Maghreb, who is accused of killing a British hostage last year and a 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in July 2010 (though his body has not been recovered so far).

The Spanish government is said to have recently paid millions of Euros to release two of its nationals captured by AQIM in Mauritania.

Its main objective is clearly to attack French, Spanish, Algerian and US assets and personnel in the region.

Though Areva had engaged some private security agencies to protect its sites, it appears that the guards were unarmed and forced to leave the job to the Nigerian Army. According to an agreement with the Government in Niamey, 350 armed troops were to defend the site.

Soon after the kidnapping, the blame game started with the French company accusing the Nigerian authorities (apparently some 'insiders' helped the terrorists reach the spot and whisk the hostages away), while Idi Ango Omar, the Nigerian Home Minister declared that it was Areva's responsibility to protect its own personnel. The Minister also criticised the French company for using former Tuareg rebels to look after its interests.

Rumors circulated that the hostages had been taken to nearby Mali, forcing Paris to decide to evacuate its nationals from the Saharan State.

While Luc Chatel, the spokesperson of the Government, stated "France will do everything to free its hostages", he refused to answer whether Paris was contemplating a 'military operation'.

However, he did affirm that the kidnapping had no link with an operation by French Special Forces who unsuccessfully tried to liberate Michel Germaneau two months ago in Mali.

It appears now that in early September, Captain Seydou Oumanou, the Prefect of Arlit, informed the CEOs of the companies working in the area (Somair, Cominak, Areva, NC Niger and Goviex) of "the seriousness of the security situation". He mentioned that 8 Toyotas transporting armed groups had been spotted near the mining site.

Oumanou said the Nigerian Focrces had managed to repel the terrorists, who were planning to take away "military equipment and French personnel." He concluded: "You will understand that in these circumstances the AQIM threat should been taken seriously".

Though Areva now affirms that it immediately acted on this communication of the local authorities by sending a senior official to meet the military authorities in Niamey, nothing could be concretely organised before the fateful day.

Since then, the AQIM has officially claimed the abduction of five French nationals, announcing: "We claim responsibility for this blessed operation and tell the French government that the mujahideens will inform it with their legitimate demands at a later time."

In a voice message heard on al-Jazeera channel, AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed added: "We also warn [the French government] against any sort of stupidity." He was probably referring to a possible military operation.

He continued: "Following the promise of our emir, Abou Moussab, a group of heroic mujahideen last Wednesday, under the command of Sheikh Abou Zeid, succeeded in penetrating the French mining site at Arlit in Niger."

Soon after the AQIM announcement, the French Defence Council met at the Elysee Palace under the chairmanship of President Sarkozy. Nothing seemed to have transpired from this high level meeting except that Brice Hortefeux, the French Home Minister left soon after for Niger.

A specialized blog run by the daily French paper Liberation (Secret Defence) informs its readers that the Special Operation Command has already sent a few hundred troops to Ouagadougou, Burkina-Faso's capital. They will be positioned there to prepare a military operation to eventually free the hostages.

Ouagadougou is perfectly located, south of the desert of Mali and Niger. This force would have at its disposal about ten Transall C-160 or Hercules C-130 aircraft for 'tactical transportation', as well as two helicopters. Long-range Breguet Atlantique aircraft and a Mirage jet equipped with sophisticated monitoring equipment are also said to have been dispatched to Niger.

The French intelligence agencies seem to have been able to track the terrorists and the hostages as they were heading towards Inabangaret, an important well in the desert. Later they would have later crossed into Mali.

All this may seem far away from Delhi, where the Great Games are soon going to be declared opened. It is however symptomatic of the spreading of the tentacles of terrorism in new continents.

Interestingly, the Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram will visit France in October to discuss terrorism and other matters of common interest.

It will be an important visit considering that both nations suffer from the same plague. Chidambaram's visit will be followed by that of Jean-David Levitte, Diplomatic Advisor to the French President, to India. Sarkozy’s 'sherpa' (as he is known) will meet his counterpart Shivshankar Menon.

A few years ago, France and India decided to address the terrorist threat bilaterally and formed an India-France Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism whose objective is to strengthen 'operational contacts' in the face of common threats.

In France, the Red Alert is still on; nobody knows how long it will remain. In India, with the forthcoming Games, the security agencies are on tenterhooks.

Given that the Indian government has made such a fool of itself - it is quite embarrassing when people start asking questions about the Games as soon as they get to know you're from India - the threat of terrorism crops up again when the country is in its most vulnerable state. 

Born in France, Claude Arpi's quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier  (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.

Also read: What ails US intelligence? | More columns by Claude Arpi

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