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Al-Qaeda Plays the Spanish Card in France

An al-Qaeda cell has threatened to wage Jihad against France for voting the "wrong way." The cell has a familiar name, connected with groups in Iraq and also with those who perpetrated the Madrid and London bombings. Is the threat real, or a part of a disinformation campaign? By Richard Miniter, PJM Washington editor

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Richard Miniter

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May 21, 2007 - 9:31 am

WASHINGTON-Days after Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidential elections, an al Qaeda cell vowed “a bloody jihad attack and a murderous war in the heart of Sarkozy’s capital [Paris]” to punish the French for voting the wrong way.

The death threat is signed by “Abu Hafs al-Tikriti,” a name relatively new to intelligence analysts.

Tikrit was the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and many members of his inner circle bore the “al-Tikriti” name, including his personal secretary and senior members of his intelligence services and Republican Guard. If it is genuine name, it would suggest that yet another member of Saddam’s regime has joined the al Qaeda terror network. Yet the name may well be false or a part of disinformation campaign designed to sow confusion or terror.

Very little is known about Abu Hafs al-Tikriti. His name has only surfaced publicly on internet posting in violent Islamist web sites over the past year. Is he actually a former Saddam official? Is he even Iraqi? Is this a signal that al Qaeda in Iraq has consolidated its hold over the wing of the insurgency once run by Baathist renegades? Or is he simply a figment of the internet, conjured up by al Qaeda to misdirect allied intelligence?

For now, there are more questions than answers.

Intelligence analysts on both sides of the Atlantic are also struggling to assess the group behind the message.

The internet posting threatened to punish the French people for electing Sarkozy, which it calls a “Crusader-Zionist…who thirsts for the blood of Muslim children, women and elderly, and yearns to carry out the mission of his masters in the White House…”

A full translation of the message, performed by MEMRI, can be read here.

The cell, which calls itself the Martyr Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades, is both familiar and mysterious to European and American intelligence services.

The group seems to have strong links to al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s no. 2, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, has repeatedly mentioned the organization in audio and video messages since 2002. The Brigades has also repeated genuine messages from bin Laden and Zawahiri. The group takes its name from the nom de guerre of Mohammed Atef, the former head of al Qaeda’s military wing who was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from an American spy-drone Predator plane on a house south of Kabul in November 2001.

More ominously for the people of Paris, the Brigades have been linked to the Madrid train bombings, which claimed some 200 lives, and the London bombings, which murdered or maimed more than 50 civilians.

While the group issued the first claims of responsibility for both attacks, many government officials in Europe and the United States believe that other al Qaeda cells undertook those attacks. The Brigades, one said on condition of anonymity, may exist as a propaganda unit, which ensures that al Qaeda gets credit for its killings while allowing the actual operating cells to remain hidden.

On the other hand, some American intelligence officers discount the group entirely, pointing out that it claimed credit for the 2003 black outs in the United States and Canada. Indeed, the group may be an independent copycat group, all talk and no bombers.

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