Paris bomb scare raises question: jihadis, or not?

The note announcing the explosives lacked references to Islam, jihad, or the Taliban.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
Evacuation: Within 15 minutes of arriving, police had emptied Printemps department store.

The first words in the Paris bomb warning letter – "We are from the Afghan revolutionary front" – already show something unusual. The group or persons leaving five old sticks of dynamite in a men's room in an upscale Paris department store at the height of Christmas shopping were not using the language of jihad, of Islam, or of the Taliban, to create fear.

Rather, the letter, posted to Agence France-Presse (AFP) and intended to reach French President Nicolas Sarkozy, contained what seems more a political than a religious demand. It said French troops must leave Afghanistan by the end of February. If not, the group threatened, using almost Marxist phraseology, "we will take action again in your capitalist stores."

Whether the Paris threat was authentic, a cruel prank, a deceptive shot from the ultraleft – or from unknown Afghan, Pakistani, or other South Asian groups – was unclear Tuesday. The dynamite was found by sniffer dogs in a third-floor men's room in Printemps – one of the best-known department stores in Paris, located in the busy streets behind the Paris Opera and a hallmark of French pride.

Yet in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks against civilians and tourists in the most upscale city in India, security services in London, Paris, Italy, and Spain were closely studying how the attacks occurred. A bomb scare in Paris showing at least rudimentary capability of harm brings extra scrutiny and worry about the terror tactic of "soft targets."

French Ministry of Interior officials issued a statement, for example. "Beware of indications in the letter that might direct the inquirers to red herrings," the statement cautions.

Yet the method and language of the Paris threat are unusual, terrorism experts say. For example, announcing a bomb ahead of its deadly use is not a trademark of Al Qaeda, and has not been seen in Europe "for at least 20 years," says Ali Laidi, a French expert on terrorism at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

"This is very different from the jihadi rhetoric of a group like Al Qaeda," says Mr. Laidi. "There is no reference to the Koran, to Muslims. They use a word like 'revolutionary' to define themselves, a secular political word. It almost seems they want to distance themselves from Al Qaeda."

The incident, which emptied the Printemps store for several hours, came less than a week after Belgian security and police arrested 14 individuals allegedly linked to Al Qaeda – ahead of a major EU summit in Brussels. One of the men was described as having recently recorded a "martyr's video" for friends and family, an act that often immediately precedes a suicide bombing.

French troops were added in Afghanistan last summer; weeks later, a French convoy was ambushed and 10 soldiers were killed, causing President Sarkozy to fly to Kabul. France has 2,600 troops deployed in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Sarkozy has said that next April, France will fully rejoin NATO.

Most Parisians and shoppers took the news stoically. Italian tourist Ilaria de Pasqua, for example, was quoted by AFP said after being denied entry to Printemps at midday.

"There are lots of shops. I am going to Galeries Lafayette instead," she said.

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