Is France under attack in Africa?

People stand among debris outside the French embassy after the building was attacked in Tripoli, 23 April 2013

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It may have come as a surprise that of all French embassies on the African continent, the one in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, has come under attack.

"It was an unfamiliar scene in the Libyan capital's upscale residential neighbourhood, which left many confused," wrote my colleague in Tripoli, Rana Jawad, following Tuesday's bomb which wounded two French guards and several residents.

"People know what has happened, but they don't understand why, or who did it."

France stood at the forefront of the Nato operations which helped rebels topple the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

However, Libya is far from stable. Many of the different militia and armed groups who fought Gaddafi are yet to be disarmed or integrated into the national army.

Start Quote

A French family was abducted in northern Cameroon and released, but apart from that, we haven't seen major attacks against the French since the military campaign started in Mali”

End Quote Gilles Yabi

Attacks by Islamist militants in the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, are also on the rise. They have been blamed for the attack in September on the US consulate in Benghazi which left ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others dead.

So it is difficult to assess whether Tuesday's attack was aimed specifically at France or "the West" in general.

No-one has claimed responsibility for the Tripoli attack - and investigations are under way.

Yet there is speculation that it could be retaliation for France's recent intervention in Mali, where Islamist groups and members of al-Qaeda's North Africa branch - al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - had taken control of the country's vast northern desert region.

When the French launched their first air strikes in January, jihadist groups warned that French interests in the region would come under attack as a result.

Observers feared a bomb attack in the Malian capital, Bamako, or in a Francophone West African city where French nationals usually represent the biggest expatriate community.

But for many years French nationals in Africa have been exposed at tumultuous times.

France is the former colonial power of many countries in west and central Africa and it maintained a close relationship with most local administrations, even those not always popular with the people.

French soldiers on patrol in the Terz valley, about 60km (37 miles) south of the town of Tessalit in northern Mali, on 20 March 2013 Some 4,000 French troops were deployed to Mali to take on the Islamist militants

This means that French political and economic interests have repeatedly been targeted.

Most recently, angry people in the Central African Republic protested because French soldiers did not intervene to stop a rebel advance on the capital, Bangui. A few French businesses were directly targeted in the city.

Militia groups in Ivory Coast turned against French citizens 10 years ago when France was then seen as interfering in the country's affairs.

So have the French become more of a target since President Francois Hollande sent troops to landlocked Mali?

"A French family was abducted in northern Cameroon and released, but apart from that, we haven't seen major attacks against the French since the military campaign started in Mali," says Gilles Yabi, based in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, for the think-tank International Crisis Group.

"France engaged in an unprecedented war against AQIM in the region and when you fight these guys you can expect that they will retaliate.

"But we can't say that the French have particularly come under attack since they intervened in Mali."

'Paranoid'

In fact, other political moves in Paris over the years have prompted jihadist groups to target French nationals - for instance the controversial ban on wearing the Islamic veil in public places.

"The threat has been growing for several years," says French diplomat Gautier Mignot in Dakar.

Mr Mignot points out that France had already reinforced its security measures well before the military deployed to Mali.

In August 2009, a young man blew himself up near the French embassy in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. Three people suffered light injuries while AQIM said it was responsible for the suicide attack.

A year-and-a-half later, the French embassy in Bamako was attacked. A man armed with an automatic rifle, a hand-grenade and a gas bomb claimed to be a member of al-Qaeda.

There are still about a dozen hostages - most of them French nationals - held by Islamist groups in the lawless Sahara and Sahel regions.

But most French business representatives refuse to become "paranoid".

"Of course, we can't ignore the risks and nobody is immune," says Air France's regional director Jean-Raoul Tauzin.

"We can't afford to fall into some kind of security psychosis."

Map of Sahara and Sahel region

Air France says that the number of passengers flying to Mali dropped after last year's coup, which prompted the Islamist groups to take advantage of the chaos and take over northern cities and towns.

French, and most other Western tourists, had long abandoned the desert trips to historic cities such as Timbuktu because of the potential hostage-taking risks.

But the company says better days have returned. Air France now operates five flights to Bamako a week, only two down from the daily offer it had before the putsch.

Most passengers are French nationals residing in Mali, or international staff going back and forth for work purposes.

"We can't stop operating, which is probably the aim of those who create terror," Mr Tauzin concluded.

'High alert'

The threat of attacks on France's interests is nonetheless considered a major concern.

"The level of our security alert is very high," says a spokesman for the French state-owned nuclear energy company Areva, which operates in uranium-rich Niger.

Seven workers were abducted at the uranium mining sites of Arlit in Niger in September 2010. Three have been released but four French nationals are still being held.

A student holds a sign reading "No to France" as he takes part in a demonstration in Niamey on 5 April 2013 against France and French nuclear energy firm Areva which extracts uranium in the north of Niger Protesting students say Niger does not benefit from its French-mined uranium

French expatriates resumed working at the site itself only a few months after the attack, but only "on rotation".

Hundreds of Nigerien troops have been deployed there since AQIM stormed the facilities and French special forces were reportedly sent to protect the sites shortly after French jets first bombarded insurgents in Mali.

France also keeps in mind January's deadly siege of a gas plant in Algeria, which al-Qaeda field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar said he organised days after the French intervention in Mali.

In Dakar, Mr Mignot says the embassy has been receiving more phone calls from investors enquiring about the security situation in recent months amid concerns that the Mali crisis could spill over borders.

"Our message is clear: Senegal isn't a country at high risk," he says.

The Senegalese have beefed up security patrols at the border with Mali.

But the French remain on alert in a volatile region. Another French diplomat, who did not want to be named, said that "although there's a clear understanding of the threat, most of these countries have never dealt with terrorism".

"They can bring in good intelligence, but the level of preparation to face terror attacks is pretty basic."

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