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

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 are causing delays at major airports and have 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 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.

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