Were French police target of terror plot? Security is upped at Paris HQ as attack clues mount
Police upped security at the headquarters of France’s criminal investigations police Wednesday as investigators who were questioning five suspects in an alleged terror plot sought to identify their potential targets from a seized mobile telephone, officials said.
A police official confirmed that security was reinforced at the imposing judicial police headquarters on the Seine River, known by its address, 36 Quai des Orfevres. The building reportedly showed up, along with others, in searches performed on a telephone belonging to one of the suspects.
Investigators are concentrating on uncovering clues to what authorities say was a thwarted effort to launch another attrack in France, two officials with knowledge of the case said. The suspects must be issued preliminary charges on Thursday or released.
Two suspects — one of them a school employee — apparently travelled briefly to Syria, the two officials said, increasing suspicion of a link to Islamic extremists. The officials were not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Seven people originally were arrested early Sunday in Strasbourg, in eastern France, and in Marseille, in the south, but two of them have been released.
A telephone belonging to one of four men arrested in Strasbourg and possibly computers seized in the investigation have revealed the devices were used to search for locations, including for an amusement park, that might have been potential attack targets, the officials said.
They cautioned that the numerous searches did not necessarily amount to lists of potential sites. However, French television station BFM TV and RTL radio said other sites researched included arched out were the General Directorate for Internal Security — the French interior intelligence service — and the judicial police headquarters.
The information could not be independently confirmed.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Monday the arrests culminated a more than eight-month investigation that he said thwarted a “terrorist action envisaged for a long time on our soil.” A series of arrests in June and the arrests this past Sunday put an end to the plot, Cazeneuve said.
The June arrests involved people behind financing the alleged attack plot, while the Sunday arrests targeted the operational team, but both groups were under orders from unidentified commanders in Syria, one of the two officials said earlier this week. Four weapons were seized in the Strasbourg raids and there were indications the suspects were seeking more, the official said on Wednesday.
The suspects are believed to have initially wanted to target the Euro 2016 European soccer tournament earlier this year. After arrests were made at the start of the tournament in June, the focus changed.
The officials said it was too early to speak with certainty about attack targets and referred only to the sites as searches. Cazeneuve has said investigators are studying whether the alleged attack planning was part of a larger plot to attack multiple sites simultaneously.
The interior minister, meanwhile, on Wednesday presented a decree to dissolve an association that provides aid to inmates and families, especially those convicted on terrorism charges. He claimed the group also encourages radicalization and rallies those it oversees to the jihadi cause.
The move was among numerous steps, including closing radical mosques and expelling radical preachers, France is taking to try to draw down the terrorist threat. France remains under a state of emergency imposed after deadly Islamic State attacks on Paris last year. President Francois Hollande has said he wants the extraordinary measures prolonged until presidential elections next spring, a move that requires parliamentary approval.
The officials said that two of the four suspects arrested in Strasbourg, Yassine B. and Hicham M., both 38 years old and French, likely traveled to Syria in 2015, going first to Cyprus as if on vacation, then making what is suspected to have been a quick trip to Syria. Further information on the purpose of the journey was not immediately available.
The officials confirmed that Yassine B. worked in a Strasbourg school. His job at the school was unclear.
Only one of the suspects was known to authorities ahead of the sweep, a 26-year-old Moroccan arrested in Marseille. He lived legally in Aveiro, in northern Portugal, and had been flagged to European authorities as someone working in a terrorist group. Portuguese police said they had been watching him since 2015. Of the three men initially arrested in Marseille, he is the only one still jailed.
The Alsacien city of Strasbourg has been the focus of terrorism fears in the past, most recently in 2014 when authorities dismantled a jihadi network that included the brother of an Islamic State bomber who attacked the Bataclan concert hall in Paris a year ago.
That network was based in the Neuhof and Meinau areas — sites of the Sunday raids. Strasbourg authorities were moving ahead with the opening this week of the city’s famed Christmas market — target of a failed extremist plot in 2000 by French and Algerians trained in Afghanistan.