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Explosion on the Dakar: the terrorist trail in a country where France has already been a target

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Who is at the origin of the explosion which hit a Dakar rally vehicle on December 30 in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and seriously injured a Frenchman? Due to the nationality of the victim, the French national anti-terrorism prosecution (Pnat) took up the case on Tuesday, January 4, by opening a preliminary investigation to “Attempted assassinations in connection with a terrorist enterprise”.

→ THE FACTS. Explosion of a vehicle on the Dakar: an investigation opened for terrorism

The Sodicars team vehicle hit by the explosion had a crew of six, including five French according to the Pnat. The pilot, Philippe Boutron, 61, suffered serious leg injuries. He was repatriated and admitted to the Percy de Clamart military hospital, in the Paris region, and is now out of the artificial coma in which he had been placed, according to his son interviewed on RMC on Thursday January 6.

Terrorist character?

On the Saudi side, an investigation was also opened, according to a spokesperson for the police in charge of the province of Mecca. “Preliminary investigations have revealed that there is no criminal suspicion in this accident”, had reported the official press agency of the kingdom on the 1stJanuary. Conversely, the PNAT referral suggests that the terrorist nature of the attack is being seriously considered. Motor racing, originally called “Paris-Dakar” because of its route, has already been the target of terrorism several times, which has forced it to change location on various occasions.

→ READ. The Dakar, zero risk impossible on rallies

The investigations were entrusted to the investigators of the DGSI, the internal intelligence. “The investigation is necessarily done in conjunction with the Saudi services, but there could be additional expertise in France, if we manage, for example, to recover explosive elements”, explains Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Terrorism Analysis Center, who adds that the French police officers can only go there with the agreement of the local authorities.

“Call for maximum vigilance”

This explosion comes less than a month after Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia, during his tour in the Gulf. The French president had met Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman on December 4, in the city of Jeddah, on the eve of the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in the history of Formula 1.

The embassy as well as the consulate general of France in Saudi Arabia have relayed on their website “A call for maximum vigilance – security risk” initially published by the Quai d’Orsay on the 1stJanuary. “The terrorist threat persists in Saudi Arabia”, clarifies this advice to travelers. About 5,500 French nationals are registered in the country’s consular register. When questioned, several of them living in the capital Riyadh said they did not particularly feel this risk.

France as a target

“French residents have already been targeted by terrorism in the country”, recalls Marc Hecker, research director at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). Four French people were killed in 2007 north of Medina. “The investigation had shown that the attack had been claimed by Saudi members of an Al-Qaida cell”, notes the French Association of Victims of Terrorism on its website.

More recently, in 2020, two attacks targeted French interests in Jeddah. An explosive attack injured several people during a commemorative ceremony for November 11 organized by the French consulate, in which several Western diplomats participated. Daesh claimed responsibility for the operation.

→ ARCHIVE. Jeddah attack: is France being targeted?

Fifteen days earlier, a knife attack had also injured a security guard employee of a security company in the French diplomatic representation in Saudi Arabia’s second city. These attacks then resonated strongly with the words made by Emmanuel Macron during a tribute to Professor Samuel Paty assassinated in October 2020. The president had promised not to “Renounce cartoons” of the Prophet Muhammad.

“These attacks have shown that there are residual cells in the country: the Saudi government has faced terrorism but is failing to eradicate it”, notes Marc Hecker, who recalls that the country is “Historically linked to terrorism in people’s minds, because most of the hostage-takers of September 11, 2001 were from there”. In the first decade of the 2000s, Saudi Arabia suffered “A major campaign of Al-Qaida attacks, before dealing a hard blow to it which pushed the organization to fall back and recompose itself”. The country then suffered the threat of Daesh from 2015.

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