The Paris Bomb Scare

Matthew Yglesias wonders why “this business of a bomb being planted in a French department store by ‘a previously unknown group demanding the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan’ isn’t getting more play.”

To begin with, the story is definitely getting play here in France, but that’s to be expected. No one likes bombs, and Paris is sadly no stranger to them.

But in answer to Yglesias’ question, the wording of the warning note left with AFP as well as the methods used have created a good deal of skepticism regarding the group’s origins and stated demands. Just from the translation in the NY Times account, this immediately jumped out at me as very suspect phraseology:

Send the message to your president that he needs to withdraw his troopsfrom our country before the end of February 2009, or else we will actagain in your capitalist department stores, and this time with nowarning. (Emphasis added.)

The “capitalist” reference in the warning note’s original French, here from Le Point, is even more awkwardly phrased: “grands magasins de capitaliste,” which is hard to translate but uses a formulation where often a curse word (e.g. “merde”) would take the place of “capitalist” to turn the signifier into an insult. The message is also devoid of any Islamic fundamentalist references.

The actual “bomb,” meanwhile, was apparently several sticks of “old” dynamite without a detonator, and its precise location was revealed by the note. In other words, this was very clearly a warning, and as Jean-Dominique Merchet, quoted by the Journal de Dimanche, put it:

Al-Qaida never gives a warning when they plant a bomb. There’s a detonator in it and the message addressed to the West is measured by the number of dead.

So the most worrisome of the “usual suspects” don’t seem to pan out, and as a result the possibility of an ultra-leftist or extreme rightwing group is getting more attention, especially in light of a recent series of bombings that vandalized the high-speed train lines and led to the high-profile arrest of an anarchist cell here last month. The question that remains is whether whoever is responsible has the operational capacity to follow through on their threat of more deadly actions in the future.

So the authorities have nonetheless boosted security, and perhaps the most troubling scenario being mentioned is of a domestic fringe group being manipulated by one of the more dangerous terror organizations. If so, it would point to a newfound ideological flexibility in their choice of tactical partners that would significantly magnify the threat spectrum.

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