October 18, 2004
The mystery of the French hostagesBy Olivier Guitta
In order to avoid trouble in Iraq, foreign civilians used to pretend they were French nationals. But only until seven weeks ago, when two French journalists named Malbrunot and Chesnot, along with their Syrian chauffeur, were kidnapped. The French thought they would be immune to violence directed at them because of their vocal opposition to the war in Iraq and their blatantly pro—Arab diplomacy. So, why did this kidnapping happen?
Note that these two journalists are fluent in Arabic, love the whole region and culture and have been very supportive of practically every Arab cause.
According to Jerome Coursade, a French journalist living in Israel for 28 years, who knows Malbrunot well by having worked with him in Jerusalem, Malbrunot is 'a pro—Arab extremist.' Coursade related how, during visits in the mid—1990's to the French consulate in Jerusalem, Malbrunot would attack the French official by asking him:
'Why were we condemning terrorism? Why were we not totally espousing the Palestinian position? We must put pressure on the Jewish state without showing any understanding and making any compromises.'
Coursaude added that Malbrunot was so anti—Israel that he lived as though Israel did not exist. He was a regular supporter of the Palestinian terrorist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and counted many of their members as friends.
Interestingly enough, in an interview with the daily Ouest France, a Palestinian named Khaled Abou Alakis said that Malbrunot is like a brother to all Palestinians.
'He is a man of peace. To attack him is to attacks all of us Palestinians. We are all Georges Malbrunot.'
One credible explanation comes from Didier Julia, a French member of the National Assembly from Chirac's party, and a semi—official envoy in Baghdad working on the hostage crisis. Mr. Julia said that the French journalists and their Syrian chauffeur were kidnapped right outside a US military camp, and therefore were mistaken at first for pro—US individuals. After awhile, the kidnappers must have realized their error and decided to make the best of it. Considering that these journalists have a very pro—Arab stance, they were provided by their captors with a camera, supposedly supplied by French State TV —— exactly how is also another mystery —— to film, in an 'objective' fashion, the Iraqi resistance. This was confirmed by an IAI communiqu� on September 18.
In the Arab world, there has been massive support for the three hostages and calls for their release by Arab governments, terrorist organizations, and also Shia and Sunni religious authorities. Except for hatred against Israel, it might be the first time that the whole Arab world is unified for one cause.
It is mind—boggling to see the amount of support and the pedigree of all these supporters. Start with Sheik Yusuf al Qaradawi, head of European Islamic religious organizations and a star on al Jazeera. Qaradawi, one of the most prominent Islamists in the world, recently issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of American civilians and soldiers alike in Iraq. He also justified suicide attacks, including the September 11 terrorist acts against the USA.
But ironically, Qaradawi was disgusted by the kidnapping of the French journalists and demanded that the hostage takers release them immediately, because the hostages 'are people from the Book, whose security is guaranteed by the Koran.' It is quite interesting that this last sentence seems to apply only to the French. Americans, Italians, English, and Jews are not included by him, even though they are people from the Book.
It is not surprising, then, to see that Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister,recently met Qaradawi in Cairo and asked for his help. Qaradawi is far from the only one prominent Arab leader demanding the release of the French journalists. The Shia Lebanese terrorist organization Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and the Iraqi chief insurgent Moqtada al Sadr have also done so. Also, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, said, "These journalists are helping the Iraqi cause and the Palestinian cause." The Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas also praised France's support for the Palestinian cause and called for the immediate liberation of the French journalists.
This all happened the same day that Hamas claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing in Beersheba, where sixteen innocent Israelis were blown to pieces. Hamas must surely remember that France was the only country in the European Union fighting tooth and nail to exclude them from the terrorist organization list. The French government has never been shy in defending known terrorist entities. It seems to be paying off with the unanimous support for the French hostrages from the major terror leaders.
'It is in the interest of Islam and the Iraqi people to free them. France does not participate in the occupation of Iraq. Its journalists give a fair and true image of what's really going on in Iraq, not like other media.'
None of these people or entities have defended any other hostages; they were actually favorable to the beheading of Americans, British and Italians.
Michel Barnier, in a flabbergasting interview with al Jazeera, declared that one of the reasons for his visit to Qatar was to meet and warmly thank the Arab news channel. Barnier was very grateful to al Jazeera for its unwavering support regarding the French hostage crisis; all the other hostages definitely did not get this treatment from the Qatari channel.
Barnier went on, underlining a couple of times the steady pro—Arab policy of the French government, especially regarding Iraq and the Palestinians. He added that French President Chirac was very touched by the unanimous support from Arab leaders and Muslim regimes alike. Barnier explained that the highest authorities from Islam perfectly know and appreciate what France has been doing in the region for years.
The kidnappers demand the abrogation of the recently passed French law which forbids religious signs in public schools. This law has been viewed by most of the Muslim world as an anti—hijab (headscarf) law. Barnier claimed on al Jazeera, 'in French streets, there are thousands and thousands of women freely wearing the hijab.'
According to Le Nouvel Observateur, US General Lance Smith declared on September 4 that even though the French negotiated alone, the coalition helped them locate the right people to speak to. French diplomats were reportedly furious because they thought this would hamper their work. Furthermore, Le Nouvel Observateur suggested that the Americans had been vocal about their role because they wanted to get back at France and prevent the liberation of the French hostages.
In an op—ed in Le Monde, Robert Menard and Pierre Veilletet, leaders of the Reporters without Borders organization, explained that the Coalition offensive in Fallujah, at the time when the hostages were supposedly going to be released, was not helpful at all. They went on, writing that maybe the US wanted to take revenge on France for its blatant opposition to the war in Iraq.
Last week, Didier Julia, the semi—official envoy in Baghdad, declared that it was 'abominable' what the Americans were doing. He claimed that each time the liberation was near, the Americans would bomb the area where the convoy with the hostages was. As you can see, France and its media —— who love conspiracy theories —— do not miss an opportunity to put the blame on the US for their failure.
France hosts the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated anywhere between 6 and 8 million. The main French Muslim organization, UOIF, very close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to the smooth double—talker, Swiss Muslim Tariq Ramadan, has been fighting tooth and nail since January to abrogate this anti—hijab law. They orchestrated a worldwide Islamist campaign to violently attack France —— at least in words, for the time being. A few months ago, Sheikh Karadawi, Hizbullah and Hamas among many others threatened France for her 'anti—Muslim' policy.
But today the very same people who issued these threats are demanding the release of the French hostages. UOIF is now watering down its position on the law in question. They went from 'The Koran is our Constitution' and 'France is Islamophobic' to ' We fully and freely live our religion in France.'
What a metamorphosis! Ghaleb Bencheikh, a journalist and theologist, explained simply,
'the UOIF people are master tacticians; they understood quite well they could not be marginalized... especially when France is fearing for her hostages.'
Thus, the UOIF appeared like a savior to France, when they decided to use their international connections to the Muslim Brotherhood to obtain the hostages' liberation. At the beginning of September, one of their members even traveled with an official delegation from the French government to many Arab capitals, including Baghdad, where they met with prominent religious leaders. To no avail for the hostages, but a great political gain for UOIF. According to the political expert, Taos Ait Si Slimane, France is the only country in the world that deals so eagerly with the Muslim Brotherhood. It has now de facto legitimized a fundamentalist Islamist organization.
Also, during a recent support demonstration in Paris, one of the Muslim speakers said, 'The kidnappers got the wrong target. France and its journalists are friends of the Arabs and Islam,' implying therefore that it would be fine if the hostages were Americans, British or Italians. During that event, Donnedieu de Vabres, the French Culture and Communications Minister, was interviewed by al Manar, terrorist organization Hizbullah's TV channel, without any hesitation. Obviously, French officials forgot that al Manar was supposedly forbidden by the French authorities to be broadcast in France because of its violent anti—Semitic and fundamentalist nature. But it does not matter anymore, since Hizbullah is an ally in the fight for the liberation of the French journalists. France has no moral issues being supported by terrorists, as long as it can advance its case.
Furthermore, France has a clear track record of negotiating with terrorists and yielding to their demands. For instance, back in 1986, after a wave of bloody bombings in Paris orchestrated by Iran, the Chirac government accepted all Iran's demands. They were:
1— Reimburse a 1 Billion USD loan granted by the Shah to France
The two most credible leads are:
Even though Hizbullah had been siding with the French on this particular crisis, they have a long track record of kidnapping, starting in Lebanon in 1982. They happen to have two 'offices' in Iraq, and Sadr recently stated that he is the 'striking arm' of Hizbullah. Hizbullah is funded and supported by Syria and Iran. Sheikh Fadlallah, its 'spiritual' leader, told an interesting story back in 1986, when French hostages were held in Lebanon:
'France is standing in front of a locked vault. There are three keys to open it. The smallest is the Lebanese one. So even if I was holding your countrymen, I could not free them by myself. My little key is not enough. The Syrian key is larger. But it is not enough too. You need to get the third key, that of Iran.'
In the past few days, lots of French newspapers and politicians alike have been softly accusing Syria of being behind the kidnappings. Didier Julia just returned from Damascus, and claimed that the hostages are already in Syria. If true, it would be a way for Syrian President Assad to punish France against its recent tougher diplomatic stance on Syria. France has co—sponsored a UN Security Council resolution asking Syria to withdraw all its troops from Lebanon.
Second option: the Algerian terrorist group GIA, which was already behind a terror campaign killing dozens of innocents in Paris in 1995. According to a couple of experts and a French diplomat, the Islamic Army in Iraq communiqu�s strangely resemble the GIA's demands. In fact, the IAI accused France of 'having played the main role in preventing the Muslims from seizing power in Algeria after their victory.' Also during a recent debate on al Jazeera, the pro GIA Algerian Islamist Ahmed Ben Mohamed violently attacked France, and detailed one—by—one the same criticsims made in the IAI's statement. Very troubling? Among the unanimous flow of support for release of the hostages from the Arab world, the only public dissent has been coming from the GIA.
In light of this very murky situation, the plot of the French hostage incident is growing thicker by the day. What is nonetheless sure is that France once more has chosen its camp: as our enemy. That's why even Europeans have been very quiet in demonstrating their solidarity with the French, compared to the vocal unanimous support from the Arab world.
There is a growing disconnect between France and the rest of the Western world. Corinne Lepage, a French ex—minister, summed up perfectly France's predicament.
Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specialized in the Middle East and Europe.