Deputy al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has urged a militant Algerian Islamist group to punish "crusader nation" France, even though it vehemently opposed the US-led war in Iraq, a newspaper said on Thursday.
The Le Figaro daily cited a security expert who had reviewed the entire tape, released on Monday, in which Zawahiri called on the Algerian GSPC group to become "a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders."
He also urged the GSPC – the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – to sow fear "in the hearts of the traitors and the apostate sons of France" and to crush the "pillars of the Crusader alliance."
The expression crusader refers to medieval military campaigns waged in the name of Christendom to recapture the Holy Land from Muslims, and is frequently used in Islamist circles to designate enemies of Islam.
When Zawahiri's message was initially released on the internet, to coincide with the 5th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, media reports focused on threats to attack US allies in Gulf Arab states and Israel.
But Anne Giudicelli, head of the Terrorisc (sic) security consultancy and who reviewed the whole tape, told Le Figaro the anti-France message had dominated the homepage of the internet website used by the GSPC for the past few days.
The group emerged from the Armed Islamic Group blamed for a massacre of civilians during a bloody insurgency against Algeria's military-backed government in the 1990s.
It is viewed as a major threat by the French security services and sources quoted by Le Figaro said it had switched its focus to taking part in the international jihad – which means holy war in Arabic – after losing influence at home.
Many French people believe their country is less of a target for Islamist-inspired attacks because of France's stance over Iraq, but officials say that cuts no ice with militants.
A ban of the traditional Muslim headscarf in secular state schools, close French intelligence links with its former North African colonies combating Islamist extremists, and its role in NATO operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban militia, have secured France's status as a "crusader nation," experts say.
France is also dispatching some 2,000 troops to join a peacekeeping force in its former protectorate Lebanon, putting it in the front line of a mission that Zawahiri has denounced.
On Monday, Pierrre de Bousquet de Florian, head of the DST domestic security service, said the threat of terrorist attack remained "very high and very international."
"For our Islamist adversaries, our country is frankly in the Western camp, the crusaders in their words, and we will be spared nothing," he told RTL radio on Monday.