Allow me to briefly go back to the last Zawahiri interview, put on-line through Sahab media on 5 August 2009. To my knowledge, this is the first time Bin Laden’s deputy has expressed such articulate hatred for France:
“France claims secularism, while her heart pours grudge towards Islam. Napoleon Bonaparte announced his famous statement to the Jews in 1799 in Akka, in which he promised to support the Jews in stealing Palestine. France is the one whose soldiers went with their horses into al-Azhar University and stood on its Qur’anic Books, and they took it as a stable to their horses. France is the one who fought Islam and Arabs in Algeria, and France is the one who supplied Israel with a nuclear reactor, and France fights Muslims in Afghanistan, and France fights hijab, and France will pay for all her crimes”.
Zawahiri has long be known for his French-bashing. In the late eighties, when he launched a vicious campaign against Ahmad Shah Mas’ud among the jihadi community in Peshawar, he accused the Tajik leader to be a French agent and to be surrounded by French women (in fact humanitarian workers who had walked their way up to Panjshir).
In his pamphlets, he repeatedly branded colonial France for carving up the Middle East through the Sykes-Picot agreement. During the Algerian civil war, he endorsed the attacks against the “French party” (hizb Fransa), as the secular camp came to be known in the jihadi propaganda. And he listed consistently the French among the “enemies of Islam”, along with the Americans, the Jews and the British. He was the first one to threaten France in February 2004, after a law banning the veil at government schools was passed.
What is fascinating in Zawahiri’s recent outburst against France is his ideological focus on Napoleon Bonaparte, who was only a general at the time he invaded Egypt in 1798. He insists on the sacrileges perpetrated by the French revolutionary armies (although they were probably more respectful of the Arab mosques than of the European churches) and he gives utmost credit to a “famous” letter to the Jews of Palestine, a standard of anti-Zionist propaganda, that French historians have proved to be a forgery (originating from European messianic Jewish circles). The key to the argument is that Napoleon embodies the innate hostility of France against Islam, in its two secular and Zionist dimensions. France becomes in Zawahiri’s rhetoric a new brand of Crusader state, more “secular” than Christian.
Apart from Zawahiri’s Egyptian obsessions, two other developments could have contributed to this aggressive emphasis against France. First, Barack Obama’s Cairo speech on 4 June makes it more difficult to portray America as waging an all-out war against Islam, no matter how hard jihadis propagandists try, so France provides a welcome alternative target for his secular commitment (that even Obama indirectly criticized in Cairo).
Second, and probably more important, the merging of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) into Al-Qaida as its branch for the “Islamic Maghrib” (AQIM) has introduced more anti-French content to the global jihadi propaganda, with Zawahiri himself taking the lead. (Incidentally, a similar process occurred after the incorporation of Zarqawi’s network in Iraq, when al-Qaida’s media coverage included more anti-Shi’a rhetoric). Drukdal, AQIM’s emir, went as far as labeling France “mother of all evils”, on 30 June this year. And those are not just empty words, since Zawahiri’s “Napoleonic” interview was followed, three days later, by a foiled AQIM suicide attack against the French embassy in Mauritania.