“We are at war with al Qaeda,” French Prime Minister François Fillon said a week ago today. These comments, a July 26 statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and a trip last week to West Africa by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner lay the foundation for what may be a significant increase in French counterterrorism activities in West Africa.
A violent Islamist, al Qaeda-sponsored insurgency has raged in the region for almost two decades now – beginning in Algeria in the 1990s and spreading south to the Sahelian region of the Saharan desert in the last ten years. As of yet, the terrorists based in the area have not conducted a significant operation outside the region. However, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has managed to target Western interests in the region and capture a number of Western hostages. The group strayed from its traditional practice of exchanging such captives for ransom payments in two high-profile incidents in the past year. In June 2009, it killed Edwin Dyer, a British citizen, after the British government refused to release Abu Qatadah, once known as bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe. Most recently, on July 24, the group executed the French hostage Michel Germaneau.