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Saudis warn France of an Al Qaeda attack. Are they right?

The Saudis have gleaned significant intelligence over 10 years of pursuing Al Qaeda affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula. But AQAP hasn't yet shown it can attack the West.

By Staff writer / October 18, 2010

Soldiers patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Oct. 18. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Sunday that France has received new warnings of a terror threat in Europe, 'notably France,' from Saudi intelligence services.

Jacques Brinon/AP


France has been having a rough couple of weeks that demonstrate the gap between popular American perceptions of the country and reality.

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Strikes over austerity measures being pushed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy is causing delays at major airports and has closed hundreds of gas stations across the country. The Eiffel Tower, that tourism-magnet and symbol of France, was briefly closed in September over a bomb scare.

Now, the country is warning that it's being targeted by a terrorist group.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told local media Sunday that Saudi Arabia has warned him that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based group that shares Osama bin Laden's worldview but is a separate organization from his mostly Afghanistan and Pakistan-based group, has France in its sights.

That's led France to increase its warning level of a possible terrorist attack to "reinforced red," the second-highest alert on its scale.

How accurate is Saudi tip-off?

The Saudis have relentlessly pursued Al Qaeda affiliates in their country for over a decade now, since the organization is devoted to the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. Those efforts have been quite successful – leaving most of its leaders bottled up in lawless corners of Yemen.

That has left the Saudis with an enormous amount of intelligence about the group – as well as an incentive to perhaps overemphasize threats to others, possibly to remind potential arms suppliers such as France that "our enemy is your enemy."

So while the Saudis may be correct in asserting that AQAP aspires to launching attacks in France, it's worth keeping in mind that the group hasn't yet successfully organized an attack anywhere in Europe (or anywhere in the West).