France warned of extremist threat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 4:04am

A French prosecutor yesterday branded a homegrown group of Islamist extremists as the biggest terror threat the country has faced since the Algerian-based GIA carried out a string of deadly bombings in the 1990s.

Announcing that he would pursue charges of attempted murder and terrorism against seven of 12 suspects arrested at the weekend, prosecutor Francois Molins said they had been part of a terrorist cell that was "probably the most dangerous in France since 1996".

The group, he said, had been plotting to attack targets in France and to join "jihadists" in Syria and elsewhere. The profile of the suspects in custody was "much more dangerous than we initially assumed".

The GIA, or Armed Islamic Group, emerged from Algeria's civil war and was responsible for a string of bombings in France in 1995 and 1996. One of the attacks, on the St Michel metro station in Paris, killed eight people.

The perpetrators of that attack were convicted in 1999, by which time the threat posed by the group had been neutralised as a result of arrests.

The charges against the suspects detained at the weekend relate to a grenade attack on a Jewish grocery store in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles last month.

The attack left one person slightly injured but Molins said the Yugoslav-made grenade could have seriously injured anyone within a 10-metre radius.

One alleged leading member of the group, 33-year-old Jeremie Louis-Sidney, was shot dead after he opened fire on officers seeking to arrest him in a dawn raid at his home in Strasbourg.

Police have since discovered weapons and significant amounts of bomb-making equipment at the home of one of the other suspects, Jeremy Bailly, in the Paris suburbs.

Bailly has admitted attempting to fabricate a bomb but has refused to say whether anyone else was involved or what his potential target was.

"It was exactly the kind of bomb making used by the GIA in 1995," Molins said.

Five of the 12 initially detained were released without charge yesterday. The other seven are all French citizens, aged between 19 and 25, Molins said. All but one of them are converts to Islam. Two of them had served time in prison for drug dealing.

Investigators believe five people, including Louis-Sydney, were implicated in the Sarcelles attack, which was carried out by two men on a moped.

Molins said one of them was of African origin, the other white. Police were not sure if they were among the seven facing charges.

Two of the seven are thought to have been central to the plans of some of the group to join opposition forces in Syria, according to Molins.

His decision to pursue charges against the seven suspects triggers the opening of a preliminary inquiry, which will be overseen by three judges who will have to decide when and if formal charges are brought against them.