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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

French counterterror forces on high alert

French counterterrorism forces are on high alert going into presidential elections next spring, two of the country's top terrorism officials say, citing three Islamist plots thwarted over the last 18 months — including one to bomb the Paris Métro and another targeting Orly Airport.

The chief anti-terrorism investigator in France, Jean-Louis Bruguière, a judge, said in an interview that his country had become more of a terrorist target because an Algerian network that considered Paris its principal enemy had officially linked up with Al Qaeda.

This had given the network, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, commonly known by its French acronym GSPC, access to a growing number of jihadists hardened by battle in Iraq, Bruguière said.

French officials and media have mentioned the reportedly thwarted plots at intervals since the spring, but details have remained sketchy. Bruguière said 76 people were arrested between June 2005 and September 2006 in connection with the three foiled attacks, but he declined to specify how many remained in custody. So far, none have been tried.

Several dozen others believed to be part of a loose network of Islamist militants with links to the Algerian group and Iraq are being watched by French counterterrorism forces, he said.

"We consider the threat level to be very high," Bruguière said in an interview, adding that it had increased over the past six months. "We are especially vigilant as elections are approaching."

Christophe Chaboud, head of the French Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit in the Interior Ministry, said that one "working hypothesis" was that the three plots had been timed for the election, although he said investigators had so far found no hard evidence that militants planned to strike close to the ballots on April 22 and May 6.

On March 11, 2004, Islamist terrorists carried out coordinated train bombings in Madrid three days before a national election in which the incumbent government — which supported the U.S.- led invasion of Iraq — was defeated.

In July 2005, suicide bombings in London coincided with a G-8 summit meeting headed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, Europe's most ardent supporter of U.S. policy in Iraq.

"Everyone is thinking about Spain and March 11," Chaboud said in a telephone interview. "In the choice of dates of Islamists, symbolism is important and past successes become reference points for future actions."

France, which opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was initially thought less at risk from terrorist attack.

Now, however, it is at threat level "red" — classified as an "established risk of one or more serious terrorist actions" — according to Gilles Furigo, deputy director for protection of French VIPs at the Interior Ministry.

Ségolène Royal, the Socialists' presidential candidate, has been under police protection since August, with more agents guarding her than have guarded candidates in past campaigns, Furigo said. He declined to give specific numbers, citing security reasons. The level of protection offered to presidential candidates and other VIPs, and special measures, such as bomb checks, are subject to constant evaluation and change frequently, he said.

Generally, candidates who are serving or former presidents, prime ministers or interior ministers automatically receive protection. For others, the protection traditionally kicks in just three weeks before the first round of voting, Furigo said.

"We are taking into account a situation in which we have to be more vigilant," Furigo said.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the likely challenger to Royal on the right, is already under protection as interior minister. He has made law and order a campaign issue in the past. Chaboud and Furigo both report to Sarkozy.

The GSPC appeared in 1998 as an offshoot of another Algerian terrorist organization, the Armed Islamic Group. In 2003, it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. In September, Al Qaeda posted a video on the Internet in which its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, formally endorsed a "union," which could broaden the Algerian group's recruitment base and access to funds, say terrorism experts and investigators. Zawahiri vowed to target "American and French crusaders."

"We took that very seriously," Chaboud said.

While its numbers are believed to have fallen from thousands to hundreds of fighters, Bruguière said the GSPC had recently increased activity not only in Algeria, but also in Morocco, Tunisia and the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa.

Its reach in Europe has also spread beyond France, he said. Several arrests linked to the group have been made in Spain and Italy over the last two years.

"What is new is that this organization has formally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, and that the relations between Al Qaeda and the GSPC allow the GSPC to work with the Iraqi branch," Bruguière said. "The Iraqi branch is fed by the GSPC, and that produces a risk of exporting jihad to North Africa — but also to France, the main target of the GSPC."

Since late 2004, Bruguière said, the links observed between militant Islamist cells in France and Iraqi jihadists have become "very clear."

"All the threats we face today are directly linked to Iraq," he said. "It's a recurrent phenomenon. The Afghan war produced cells, the war in Chechnya did as well. But the phenomenon is much more prevalent with Iraq."

Five Qaeda-linked French fighters are known to have died in Iraq, while two are imprisoned by the United States and two by France, Chaboud said. Dozens more are believed to be fighting there alongside insurgents, he said.

Algerian militants have long staged attacks in France, first during the eight- year Algerian war of independence that ended in 1962, and more recently in the 1990s, after Paris backed a military coup in Algeria that prevented a popular Islamist party there from winning elections and taking power.

Eight people were killed and more than 100 wounded when the Armed Islamic Group exploded several bombs in the Paris Métro in 1995.

Since then, Bruguière said, French security forces have foiled one or two plots a year by Islamist militants, and activity has picked up in the past two years as France banned the Muslim head scarf from schools and sent troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Bruguière and Chaboud said that the cells broken up between June last year and September were planning at least three attacks: on the Paris Métro, on Orly and on the French counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency, the Directorate of Territorial Security.

"If we had not acted, it is pretty clear that they would have tried" to execute the attack plans, Chaboud said.

Bruguière, whose mandate expires in 2008, is one of the most experienced anti-terrorism investigators in Europe. Best known for tracking down Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, or Carlos the Jackal, in 1994, he has specialized in Islamist groups since the 1980s. He has worked under police protection for 20 years, following several attempts on his life. Chaboud took over at the anti-terrorist coordination unit last year.

International Herald Tribune
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