The Long History of Middle Eastern State-Terrorism In Paris

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 19, 2015

Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi

Last week, Lee Smith wrote of the reasons that it was likely that there was a foreign hand, quite probably that of a State, in the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish deli in Paris. Smith noted that the French believe that the funding and weapons for the attacks came from abroad. Smith pointed to the historical record, in which terrorism in Paris is typically not carried out because of religion—or not directly: it might come from States that see themselves as god’s representatives on earth—or community grievances, but “because you’re getting paid to stage an operation on behalf of a particular cause or regime.” Smith gave three cases, and they seemed worth expanding on.

Assad’s Syria

On April 22, 1982, a car bomb—with Vienna plates, interestingly enough—blew up outside the offices of Al-Watan Al-Arabi, a Lebanese paper that had been consistently critical of Hafez al-Assad and pro-Saddam Hussein. One young Frenchwoman was killed and 46 people were injured in the attack. The French Interior Minister noted that the perpetrators were using French territory for the “settlements of accounts which have nothing to do with France,” which was, said the New York Times, “an apparent reference to the longstanding underground war between Syrian and Iraqi secret services.” That shadow war had included Saddam supporting the Muslim Brotherhood revolt against Assad that had been crushed at Hama in February 1982, and would include Saddam’s agents orchestrating a series of large bombings in Damascus in early 1986. Of this atrocity, police sources noted: “The car had been left in a spot where the explosion necessarily would wound or kill a maximum number of passers-by rather, rather than do damage to the newspaper office across the street”. In short the message was for France, too, which had taken a pro-Saddam line in the then-ongoing war with Iran.

Clerical Iran

Between December 7, 1985, and September 17, 1986, there were eleven bombings (and four attempted bombings) across Paris, killing thirteen people and injuring nearly 250. The attacks were orchestrated by Iran through the Hizballah cut-out, which itself used a cut-out in the form of the Committee of Solidarity with Arab and Middle East Political Prisoners (CSPPA), which claimed responsibility for the attacks. A detailed description of these attacks can be found in Matthew Levitt’s book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

The CSPPA’s first public statement was on February 3, 1986, after a bombing at a shopping gallery on the Champs-Elysees, Levitt documents. CSPPA demanded the release of several Lebanese prisoners held by France, including Anis Naccache, a Lebanese Sunni who converted to Shi’ism.

Levitt notes that Naccache had been involved in the December 1975 attack on OPEC in Vienna and had been given the personal order by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to assassinate Shapur Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last Prime Minister who managed the interim period between the Shah fleeing on Jan. 16, 1979, and the arrival of Khomeini in Tehran on Feb. 11. Naccache’s assassination attempt failed and he instead killed a police officer, Jean-Michel Jame, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in May 1982. Naccache was a close friend of Ahmad Khomeini, the Ayatollah’s son, and Mohsen Rafiqdust, a commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Lebanon. Most importantly, Naccache had been a member of FATAH’s Force 17, FATAH being the major component of the by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Force 17 was a Special Operations and Praetorian Unit for the PLO’s leadership, namely Yasser Arafat, set up by Ali Hassan Salameh (Abu Hassan) in Lebanon in the early 1970s. Salameh, one of Arafat’s most senior officials, was also intimately involved in the PLO’s deniable Black September unit and its most infamous atrocity at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It was through Force 17 that Naccache had befriended Imad Mughniyeh, who was until February 2008 the Hizballah’s operational leader and before 9/11 the man responsible for murdering the most Americans through terrorism. Before joining the Hizballah, formed in 1982, Mughniyeh had been “a member of … Force 17”, Levitt explains, and thereafter Mughniyeh was not only a formal Iranian agent but believed to be an IRGC officer. This makes the fact that Mughniyeh he was involved in training al-Qaeda members all the more interesting, but that’s a whole other story.

The terrorist network in France was led and organised by Tunisian-born Frenchman Fouad Ali Saleh, who selected targets. According to Levitt, Abdelhadi Hamadi, a Hizballah explosives expert, was dispatched to assist Saleh, and Wahid Gordji, a translator and unofficial second-in-command at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, functioned with Hamadi to give the network strategic direction. In June 1987, this blew up into a massive diplomatic incident when the French demanded that Gordji submit to questioning after accusing him directly of “instigating … and … giving support to a cell of North African terrorists” responsible for the 1986-7 bombings, and cordoned off the Iranian Embassy to stop him leaving France. In response, as Levitt describes, the clerical regime besieged the French Embassy in Tehran and Hizballah issued a communiqué threatening to murder French hostages Marcel Fontaine and Marcel Carton. The incident ended with Gordji allowed to leave France and the French Ambassador, Paul Tori, leaving Tehran, and France severing diplomatic relations with Clerical Iran in July 1987. Ali Mohamed Hariri, who would hijack an Air Afrique plane in 1987, later said in an interrogation that “all the organisations that you know in France under various names are all dependent on Hizballah,” adding that all the actions of these groups were “decided by the board of operations … in collaboration with the secret services of the Party of God.”

The network was eventually unravelled, writes Levitt, thanks to the finding of methyl nitrate on TWA Flight 847 in June 1985, the flight on which Robert Stethem was beaten to death by the Hizballah. This led the French to look toward Tehran—Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria being in the frame until then—and the defection in February 1987 of a 32-year-old Tunisian, given the cover name LOFTI, finally cracked it. LOFTI had studied in Qom and then been dispatched, on a $30,000-per-year salary, to France as an agent of the Pasdaran. To that point, Lebanese Christians had been suspected of carrying out the bombings. Levitt notes that this came to a head on March 21, 1987, when Saleh and seven others, including five Tunisians and two Lebanese with French citizenship, one of them Saleh’s wife and the other Mohammad Mouhajer, the nephew of Hizballah leader Shaykh Ibrahim al-Amin, were arrested. (Mouhajer’s release in 1988 coincided with the release of several French nationals taken hostage in Lebanon, including Fontaine and Carton, leading to much speculation that France circumvented legal norms to spare itself further terrorism.) When the French rounded up the terrorists, they had in their possession numerous weapons, ammunition, and explosives, plus arak liquor and six-and-a-half kilos of heroin, which had been used to finance the network.

Levitt records Saleh’s testimony at trial: “The stronghold of Islamism is Iran, and our enemies are all those countries who fight against Iran. By helping Iraq against Iran, your country, France, becomes our enemy. … Our main goal is to make France aware of what it is doing to us through violence.” The bombing campaign had been intended to tilt French support away from Saddam’s Iraq and the Iranian opposition, specifically the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK or PMOI), who were expelled from France in July 1986. And more narrowly for the Hizballah it had been intended to secure the release of some of its people held prisoner by France. It was a success on all fronts. In addition, in 1988, as well as the hostage-trade, France repaid $300 million of the $1 billion loan from Iran to the French nuclear consortium Eurodiff, a deal from the Shah’s time aimed at constructing a nuclear plant. As Levitt summarises, “In return for these goodwill gestures, overt attacks against French targets and the kidnapping of French nationals in Lebanon ceased.”


Between July and October 1995, a wave of bombings across Paris killed eight people and wounded more than 200. Officially, these attacks were carried out by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which was waging an insurgency against the Algerian dictatorship. The GIA used France and especially the large Algerian expatriate community to fundraise and gather recruits. The working assumption was that a GIA cell has decided to attack France for its support of le pouvoir (the power), as many Algerians refer to the cabal at the helm in Algiers.

On July 25, 1995, a gas bottle exploded in the Saint-Michel station of the Metro, massacring eight civilians and wounding 150. This was followed by a bombing at the Arc de Triomphe on Aug. 17 that wounded seventeen people, and the discovery of an enormous bomb on the railroad tracks of a high-speed rail line near Lyon on Aug. 26. On Sept. 3, a bomb malfunctioned in the middle of an open market near the Place de la Bastille in Paris, wounding four people. On Sept. 4, a “potentially powerful bomb” was discovered at a public toilet near another outdoor market in Paris, this tome in the 15th District. On Sept. 7, a car bomb at a Jewish school in Lyon wounded fourteen. After an interval, another gas bottle exploded in station Maison Blanche of the Paris Métro on Oct. 6, wounding thirteen, and another bottle bombing on Oct. 17 between the Musée d’Orsay and Notre-Dame stations wounded twenty-nine people. There was also an assassination in Paris, on July 11, 1995, of Abdelbaki Sahraoui, one of the more moderate Islamists who had come to oppose the GIA.

The GIA network was mostly rolled up. One leader, Khaled Kelkal, was killed on Sept. 29 by French security forces when he resisted arrest near Lyon. Kelkal was not considered a pivotal figure in the plots, though; he was “at most a poorly trained hit man who may have been working for a still-unidentified political group”, as The New York Times put it. A number of the suspects had—as usual—taken up residence in the United Kingdom (it was around this time that French intelligence began to refer to “Londonistan”). The crucial figure in this picture is Ali Touchent, the ringleader, who escaped back to Algeria.

Omar Nasiri, a Moroccan who was within the GIA network that carried out these bombings, but who was also passing information to the French and British governments, testified that Touchent was the son of an Algerian police commissioner. Touchent’s being an Algerian regime agent seems to have been something of an open secret. When French formally demanded Touchent’s extradition in February 1998, Algiers claimed that Touchent had been killed in a gun battle in May 1997, and Algiers had merely forgotten to tell Paris. A French intelligence officer quoted by Nasiri says: “We don’t know if [Touchent is] dead or alive, an agent [of the Algerian regime] or not.” The French view can be seen in their actions: when the members of the GIA network they had captured were placed on trial, Touchent was convicted in absentia, and more than one of the GIA convicts testified that Touchent was a regime agent who had manipulated them.

Touchent being a regime agent would not be surprising. The powerful Department of Intelligence and Security, known by its French acronym DRS, which is modelled on the KGB, had penetrated, and taken functional control of, the GIA, and pushed the group to act in ways that discredited and destroyed its cause. DRS defectors have described the way the DRS manipulated the GIA into ever-greater extremism with agents provocateurs, created Salafi-jihadist brigades out of whole cloth under the control of their agents, used Iranian terrorist networks to lure foreign fighters into Algeria who were then put into units under DRS control, and sometimes used their own Special Forces dressed as Islamists to carry out massacres, always careful, as one DRS defector put it, to ensure that “the inhabitants of the first houses were deliberately spared to enable survivors say they recognised the Islamists.”

The point of the bombings in Paris was to have the French government cease its pressure on the Algerian regime to find an accommodation with the insurgents. The regime, however, was determined to suppress the insurgency with force.

In January 1995, an agreement of opposition groups, both Islamists and secularists, had been put together in Italy. The Sant’Egidio Platform had recognised rights of both Arabs and Berbers, called for the rejection of military rule, and set the terms for an investigation into extra-judicial killing and the use of torture. To the surprise of many, even Ali Belhadj signed-off on the agreement, Belhadj being one of the most grisly Islamists in the insurgency.

The Sant’Egidio initiative, combined with the French having become disturbed by the industrial-scale slaughter employed by the regime, brought political pressure against Algiers. After the bombings in Paris, however, the French got the message and never troubled Algiers again.

After the first bombing, the GIA leader, Djamel Zitouni, a DRS agent, issued a public call on then-President Jacques Chirac to “convert to Islam to be saved”. The subsequent wave of hysteria in sternly secular France at being under fire from theocratic lunatics was exactly what the Algerian regime needed—the monstrous apparatus of official terror in Algiers became near-unanimously seen as the lesser-evil at a popular level, and the French government cut the regime a blank cheque to do what it needed to finish with the insurgency while it ran point for them in the councils of Europe. Even those in France who knew or suspected what happened thought the better part of wisdom was to keep le pouvoir sweet to avoid further terrorist attacks.


“More often than not, Middle East terrorism in Paris is waged by Middle East regimes and their security services for explicit political purposes,” Smith writes, namely to “suggest to France itself that it better change its policies in the Middle East.” As this history shows, it is not without success. In the present case Iran is an obvious candidate, with or without the complicity of Assad and the Hizballah. Amedy Coulibali claimed he was working on behalf of the Islamic State, whose real military power is provided by the remnants of Saddam’s military-intelligence establishment, and maybe he was. It could well be al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as evidence is suggesting. But even if it was AQAP “that doesn’t exclude the possibility that some regional intelligence agency had a hand in it. After all, virtually every Middle East intelligence service has a major presence in Yemen right now and doubtless many of them have infiltrated AQAP’s ranks,” Smith explains. Even if foreign intelligence services have not infiltrated AQAP, Yemen’s have. There is considerable evidence that Sanaa has manipulated the Qaeda threat in the country to line the pockets of its politicos and stave off calls for reform. After all: “The greater al Qaeda’s profile in Yemen, the more U.S. dollars flow to Yemeni government coffers.” The ambiguity of provocation, as this tactic is properly termed, is that those who actually do the killing might really believe what they say, but the cause they further might well not be their own. Saïd and Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibali might have been honestly engaged in an attempt to impose Islamic blasphemy laws on the West, but they would not be the first terrorists to find not only that they do not know about the wider causes at play, but that what they did know is “totally wrong”.

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