Turn on the Red Light

By Dickey, Christopher; Yousafzai, Sami | Newsweek, October 11, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Turn on the Red Light

Dickey, Christopher, Yousafzai, Sami, Newsweek

Byline: Christopher Dickey and Sami Yousafzai

Muslim-bashing politicians may be getting votes, but they're raising the threat to Europe.

The most popular film in France for the past three weeks has been Of Gods and Men. It's based on the true story of seven French monks in Algeria who were kidnapped in 1996 by terrorists from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and beheaded a few weeks later. Very little of the movie is devoted to the brothers' captivity, and none of it to their gruesome deaths. Instead the focus is on the months leading up to the kidnapping, and the stoic bravery of Christians and Muslims in the face of the GIA's murderous fanaticism and the Algerian government's brutal cynicism. The pious Cistercians know something horrible is going to happen to them as war closes in on their monastery, and they are afraid, but they find strength to stay on, working among the people, until the end.

The story has an eerie relevance to the current mood all across Europe. People are afraid, caught between terrorists who are plotting attacks against them and politicians who are not only exploiting the public's fears but, in some cases, openly taunting the terrorists. Throughout the continent--from Sweden and Denmark to Italy, the Netherlands, and Hungary--extremist parties based on hostility to immigrants, especially to Muslims, have emerged as powerful and sometimes decisive political forces. It's been years since the clash of civilizations seemed so real and so imminent. Last week intelligence officials in Europe and America confirmed reports that Al Qaeda's core leadership was plotting spectacular simultaneous attacks in Germany, France, and Britain. The reports cited the precedent of the November 2008 Mumbai slaughter in which 10 terrorists from the Qaeda-affiliated group Lashkar-e-Taiba, armed with nothing but assault rifles and a few grenades, killed 164 people and held the world's horrified attention for two full days.

The threatened attacks in Europe appear to be a desperate effort by Osama bin Laden and those around him to show they still have global reach, even though they're under a steady onslaught from American drones. For months, embattled Qaeda operatives in Pakistan's North Waziristan area have kept their spirits up by telling each other they would soon get revenge. "It's like they've just been waiting for news, as if they were all excited about something big about to happen in the West," says an Afghan Taliban intelligence officer who liaises between his organization and Al Qaeda. (For security reasons, he declines to let his name be published.)

As soon as Western intelligence agencies learned of the plot, American drone strikes intensified in Waziristan, with more than 20 hits in September alone, and security in Europe grew more intense and conspicuous. Last month the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice because of bomb threats. The StLazare train station and St-Michel underground hub were emptied, too, but police found no explosives. French soldiers in combat gear now patrol the Champs-Elysees. British forces have deployed around Buckingham Palace, and Germany is on alert.

But the new terrorist threat doesn't begin or end in Waziristan, and troops in the streets of European capitals are only a last-ditch defense. Qaeda acolytes and affiliates--in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Somalia, and scattered through disaffected Muslim populations in Europe and the United States--seem determined to bring their war to the West. They all have their own agendas and vendettas, and some have long histories. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of the same GIA that kidnapped the monks in 1996, and it is currently holding seven more hostages, five of them French, somewhere in the Sahara.

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