In a newly released audiotape message to the French people, Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden threatens death to French hostages held by an Al Qaeda affiliate in Africa unless French troops leave Afghanistan.
In the message, Bin Laden's second to the French people in less than six months, he says that by keeping troops in Afghanistan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has given the "green light" to "kill your captives immediately."
Bin Laden does not name the hostages but is apparently referring to five French citizens who were working for the French nuclear giant Areva in Niger when they were kidnapped in September. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the abduction, and has released pictures of the men in captivity.
The same group also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two Frenchmen in Niamey, the capital of Niger, on Jan. 7. Both were killed the next day during a rescue attempt by police and French special forces.
French ministry spokesperson Bernard Valero responded to the taped threat today, telling reporters the French government would not change their stance on Afghanistan, and that their presence was meant to help the Afghan people.
"We are determined to pursue our action in favor of the Afghan people with our allies," he said.
The release of the recording coincides with French Minister of State Michèle Alliot-Marie's five-day tour through the Middle East, which includes visits to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"France stands beside her allies at the request of the UN to help the Afghan people," she told reporters in Israel.
Though Bin Laden has been the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist for the past decade, his real power and influence within Al-Qaeda in recent years have come under question, according to Jack Cloonan, a 25-year FBI veteran and former senior agent in the Bureau's Osama Bin Laden Unit.
"His releasing [a tape] suggests to the broader audience out there that he's still in command and I think that's what it's intended to do," said Cloonan, who specialized in kidnappings and now runs a private security firm. "Does that mean he's really in command? No one really knows."
Whether Bin Laden capable of following through, Cloonan said the threat is one the French government should not ignore.
"If he puts a message out, it's obviously for the French and for everybody to say that 'I'm still relevant, I still have a say in this matter. You cross us, you kill my brothers, and I'm going to kill your citizens,'" he said. "Now think for a moment if you're over there and you're the government, are you going to take this message seriously? Damn right you are.
"You're going to take it seriously and when you're in negotiations and you've got two people who've probably got guns to their head as they're sitting there, all these things are potential headshots," said Cloonan, an expert in hostage negotiations.
The U.S. government is also taking the threat seriously, a U.S. counter-terror official told ABC News.
"France is an important ally in Afghanistan, and has been threatened before by Bin Laden," the official said. "Our top concern remains the safety of all the hostages, including those of other nationalities."
None of the hostages held in Niger are American.