France gets tough in North Africa after killing of French hostage by Al Qaeda

The French government has said it’s now “at war” with Al Qaida in North Africa and will step up its fight against Islamist terrorists in the region.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it had killed 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau in a televised statement broadcast last Sunday. A 78-year-old ailing French aid worker was executed “in cold blood” by al-Qaida’s North African branch three months after his capture, in retaliation for a failed rescue attempt that killed six militants.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or North Africa, is an affiliate of the original al-Qaida group. It grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, formally merging with al-Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the Sahel region.

Amid increasing concerns about terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa, four countries — Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger — opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert in April. The goal has been to establish a collective response to threats from traffickers and the al-Qaida offshoot.

The United States is also trying to help and has provided U.S.-run training sessions for African troops in the area. U.S. Special Forces have helped the four nations train troops in recent years. The United States said it would help the French “in any way that we can” to bring those who killed Germaneau to justice, according to U.S. State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley. “There is no religion that sanctions what can only be described as cold-blooded murder,” Crowley said Tuesday.

“I condemn this barbaric act, this odious act against an innocent victim who spent his time helping the local populations,” Sarkozy told reporters. He said Germaneau’s captors had refused to procure needed medication for the hostage, who had had a heart condition.

The declaration and attack marked a shift in strategy for France, usually discrete about its behind-the-scenes battle against terrorism.

“We are at war with al-Qaida,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday, a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the death of 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau.

The fate of Germaneau, who had formerly worked in the oil industry, illustrates the need to keep fighting terrorism, Sarkozy said.

The al-Qaida offshoot is currently holding two Spanish aid workers, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, who were taken hostage in Mauritania in November. Spain refused immediate comment on the killing of the French man but said it would continue working to free the Spanish hostages.

Spain has maintained a low profile as videos by the al-Qaida franchise regularly call for the conquest of “al-Andalus” — a reference to the period of Muslim rule of much of Spain in medieval times.

The leader of al-Qaida’s North African branch said in a message broadcast Sunday that the Frenchman was killed in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a military operation in the Sahara last week.

“As a quick response to the despicable French act, we confirm that we have killed hostage Germaneau in revenge for our six brothers who were killed in the treacherous operation,” the group’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, said in the message broadcast on Al-Jazeera television.

“Sarkozy has (not only) failed to free his compatriot in this failed operation, but he opened the doors of hell for himself and his people,” he added.

Sarkozy revealed France participated in the operation led by Mauritania against a base camp of the al-Qaida group in a last-ditch effort to free Germaneau.

“Convinced he was condemned to a certain death, we had the duty to make this effort to pull him free from his captors,” Sarkozy said in his public address. “Unfortunately, Michel Germaneau wasn’t there” and he was killed “in cold blood,” Sarkozy said, without specifying when or where the killing occurred.

The killers will “not go unpunished,” Sarkozy said in unusually strong language, given France’s habit of employing quiet cooperation with its regional allies — Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria — in which the al-Qaida franchise was spawned amid an Islamist insurgency.

The Salafist Group for Call and Combat formally merged with al-Qaida in 2006 and spread through the Sahel region — parts of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

Officials suggest France will activate accords with these countries to stop the terrorists in their tracks.

“It’s a universal threat that concerns the entire world … not just France or the West,” Defense Minister Herve Morin said Tuesday on France-2 television. “We will support local authorities so these assassins and (their) commanders are tracked, judged and taken before justice and punished. And, yes, we will help them.”

Fillon said France was on maximum security alert and several attempted attacks were thwarted on French soil and in neighbouring countries each year.

However, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he saw no increased threat to France following Germaneau’s death.

“I don’t think we have the slightest bit of evidence of an increased danger,” Kouchner told RTL radio in an interview.

The minister said he had not urged French nationals to leave the Sahel but had asked them to step up safety measures.

The foreign ministry later confirmed there were some 9,000 French expatriates living in Niger, Mauritania and Mali.

Why is North Africa important for France?
French history in North & West Africa is very long. French involvement in the region has a more recent dynamic, particularly if you look at energy and natural resources.  France is a country that relies on 80% of nuclear power for its electricity needs. Being so heavily reliant on nuclear power also means that it needs to import uranium from around the world. Niger a country in the region, provides France with this supply to about 40% of the uranium that France uses.

Al Qaeda in Magreb (AQIM) group that killed Michel Germaneau also happens to be located in this region, so do other nomadic rebel groups that attack government officials and tourists.

The first question is when will the French government move beyond rhetoric against the rebel groups and implement its decisions and pursue security operations.

Second, What does Algeria, the largest country in the region have to say about this? Algeria is also affected by AQIM, but they thus far have not shown to be willing to allow a country from outside the region like France, given Algeria’s historical relation with France to provide any security guidance in this matter.

However other countries in the region are much more open to French participation. Countries like Mauritania, which participated in the attempted rescue operation with French forces. Also Niger, which has a close relationship due to the fact that it provides 40% of France’s uranium.

For France, there two key interests that intersect in this “war”:

  1. Natural resources: Uranium for energy needs.
  2. French leadership in Europe: If France can be seen as being capable of doing something that no other European country like Germany, Netherlands or Great Britain, can do or want; which is projecting hard power in security matters abroad. It will be able to stake a policy realm that nobody in Europe will question or for that matter challenge or claim besides the United States through NATO.

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