(Winter 1995-96) As French authorities comb housing projects for underground networks of "Islamist" terrorists, it is becoming increasingly clear that the self-styled "GIA-General Command" is not the sole force behind the latest siege of terrorist bombings in France. Iran's government, which besieged Paris with lethal blasts a decade ago, today claims to stand aloof from international terrorism. But the shadow of Iran's penchant for using Islamic extremist surrogates to affect political strategy through terrorism looms large over the attacks in France.
A decade ago, terrorists controlled by Tehran laid siege to Paris in a months-long bombing campaign that culminated in a rush-hour blast that killed seven people and wounded 60 others in front of the Tati department store. Today, the terrorists strike at virtually identical targets: Paris commuters aboard an express train to the suburbs, tourists near the Arc de Triomphe, and Sunday shoppers at open air markets. Passengers traveling on France's Paris-Lyon TGV rain line escaped death when when one bomb failed to explode. Fate intervened again when a delayed school dismissal bell saved pupils at a Jewish school from death or mutilation. A car bomb timed to coincide with the children's dismissal injured 14 passersby and waiting parents.
Callers from the "GIA-General Command," representing Algeria's most violent extremist faction, the Armed Islamic Group, claim to be planting the bombs to protest France's support for Algeria's government. More likely, the callers speak for Iran, which makes little secret of its plans to install an "Islamic government" in Algiers. The plans are so far advanced that Tehran views Algiers as a "laboratory" for exporting revolution to half a dozen other Arab capitals.
The Villeurbanne outrage bears, moreover, the hallmark of another Iranian strategic goal. While the GIA has nothing to gain from killing Jewish school children, Iran frequently targets Jewish and Israeli interests with the intent of derailing the Arab-Israeli peace process. A year ago, French authorities intercepted a terrorist squad drawn from the GIA, the extremist Tunisian Nahda group and other Islamist factions. The squad was about to leave southern France to attack Israeli interests in Barcelona, Spain. The thwarted assault would have come on the heels of the Iran-sponsored bombing of an Israeli-Argentine cultural center in Buenos Aires.
French investigators have linked two classes of terrorists to the bombing siege: professionals and raw recruits. The professional class includes Yahia Rihane or "Krounfil" (an Algerian slang term for the distinguishing mole on his face), identified not only with the current bombing siege but also with planning for the hijacking of an Air France flight from Algiers last December. Designed to disrupt Franco-Algerian commercial ties, the hijacking was executed with operational support from Iran.
Khaled Kelkal, 24, is typical of the young recruits used in many Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks. Born in Algeria and raised from early childhood in a poverty-stricken suburb of Lyon, Kelkal had turned to petty crime long before his fingerprints were found on the unexploded bomb discovered on the TGV rail line near Lyon. Beset by unemployment, youths like Kelkal are easy prey for pro-Iranian recruiters who frequent housing projects blighted by decay, crime and narcotics addiction. After rudimentary training in weapons handling, some recruits are attached to clandestine networks responsible for helping ranking terrorist operatives move in and out of Europe undetected. Like Kelkal, others are set to assembling bombs. French police note that Islamist recruits increasingly frequent places of worship that promote Tehran's extremist interpretation of Islam.
A similar scenario prevailed in the mid-1980s, when the self-styled Committee for Solidarity with Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners claimed responsibility for bombs that killed 13 people, including one bomber, and wounded 215 others in Paris. Authorities found that Tunisian-born expatriates recruited by Iran's leading surrogate, the Hizballah terrorist group of Lebanon, constituted the logistical of "the committee." Fuad Ali Saleh, the chief logistician, had been trained for terrorism in Iran and received orders from the Iranian embassy in Paris. Tehran's terrorist message to Paris had three parts: stop arms sales to Iraq, then at war with Iran; repay US$1 billion loaned to France by Iran's deposed Shah; and crack down on Iranian exiles in France.
The third part of Tehran's message is familiar to many European capitals. But only Swiss and German authorities have publicly taken Tehran to task for using terrorism against its perceived "enemies" among exiles. After the assassination of Kazem Rajavi in 1990, a Swiss magistrate released a detailed report implicating Iran's intelligence services in the attack. Bonn, in turn, prosecuted terrorists charged with killing Iranian exiles in a Berlin restaurant in 1992. German authorities found that the attack was directed by Iran's large intelligence residency at its Bonn embassy and organized by Kazem Darabi, an Iranian terrorist recruiter long implanted in western Germany.
Public exposure is no deterrent to Tehran. As Switzerland's case unfloded, Iran struck a terrorist compact with Sudan's regime for training a "nucleus for Islamic action in Europe" at a camp near Khartoum. The camps' first 65 recruits were drawn from North African extremist factions, and sent to Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in 1991. With the Tehran-Khartoum alliance now operating 20 such facilities and terrorists planting "locally made" gas-canister bombs in France, the time has come for Europeans to take concerted counterterrorism action against Iran.