France has been having a rough couple of weeks that demonstrate the gap between popular American perceptions of the country and reality.
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).
The closest the group might have come to an attack beyond Saudi Arabia and Yemen was the hapless underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who managed to burn himself while attempting to set off a homemade bomb stuffed in his pants on an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight last December. AQAP claimed after his arrest that they had dispatched him as revenge for US support for offensives against AQAP operatives in Yemen.
AQAP focused on targets close to home
AQAP's rhetoric – as its name suggests – has been more focused on Saudi Arabia and its ruling family than on the land of Brie and Bordeaux.
Qasim al Raymi, a military commander for AQAP, explained his group's goals in an audiotape released earlier this month. "The mujahedin are advancing with firm steps towards their goal: to apply sharia in the [Arabian Peninsula] by means of jihad."
The group claimed responsibility for a failed 2004 car bombing of Saudi interior ministry buildings and a 2006 suicide car-bomb attack on a Saudi oil refinery. Inside Yemen, it has been involved in a number of militant activities, particularly in Abyan province, as recently as last week.
None of this is to say the group's members probably wouldn't like to lash out at France, over its recent efforts to ban the burqa. Or the US for its strong support for the Saudi monarchy. Or the UK and Germany for their involvement in the US-led war in Afghanistan.
AQAP aspirations vs. ability
But desire and ability are quite different things. French security, and most of their European counterparts, have improved their monitoring of would-be militants and intelligence sharing in recent years, to positive effect. And a number of would-be jihadis from Europe are hardly terrorist masterminds. This excellent article in Der Speigel points out that about 11 Germans went to Pakistan to become holy warriors and found themselves out of their depth.
With all that it mind, it's worth looking at Mr. Hortefeux's precise words. He explained to a weekly French talk show that the Saudis told France that "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was doubtless active or envisioned being active ... [in Europe], notably France."
There is an enormous gulf between having active militant cells in Europe and "envisioning" having active militant cells. According to Hortefeux, the Saudis aren't sure how close to actually "being active" the group really is.
To be sure, the likelihood that a successful attack could be carried out in France can't be dismissed. In particular, France probably has more to worry about from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African group that draws many of its followers from France's former colonial possessions in the area. With many French of Algerian and Moroccan heritage and ongoing ties to their ancestral homes, that's a more likely source of severe threats.