France Says Extremists Are Enlisting Its Citizens
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
PARIS -- French police investigating plans by a group of Islamic extremists to attack targets in Paris discovered last month that the group was recruiting French citizens to train in the Middle East and return home to carry out terrorist attacks, sources familiar with the investigation said.
One French official said the extremists were using a virtual "underground railroad" through Syria to spirit European and Middle Eastern citizens into and out of Iraq. A senior French law enforcement official, who declined to be quoted by name because he was speaking about classified information, said French citizens had undergone terrorist training at camps in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
"There's always been an enormous jihad zone to train people to fight in their country of origin," the official said. "We saw it Afghanistan, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and now we're seeing it in Iraq."
What's new, he said, is that the French cell under investigation "is linked with networks in Iraq, right now, through an individual based in Syria. Now we're finding camps in Syria and Lebanon, and it's the same pattern, training in explosives and chemical weapons, which is an obsession of the jihadists."
In a recent television interview, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the terror risk for Paris "very high," adding, "We know that there are about 10 young Frenchmen in Iraq, ready to become kamikazes."
"One asks himself why a certain number of young French people are in Pakistan in religious schools," Sarkozy said. "It's not normal that an individual who lives in our neighborhoods leaves all of a sudden for four months in Afghanistan, three months in Syria. We want to know who is going where, for how long, and when they come back."
Sarkozy's comments underscore deep concern in Europe that Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the world's main terrorist training ground, spreading upheaval across the Middle East to Europe and further radicalizing Muslims everywhere.
"Iraq is a live-fire training ground in urban terrorism, and that's exactly what we fear," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
"Islamic terrorism is a much bigger problem in Europe than in the U.S. because you don't have the relatively large Muslim community that we do," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London. "What the war in Iraq has done is radicalize these people and make some of them prepared to support terrorism. Iraq is a great recruiting sergeant."
Following bombings in London this year and Madrid last year that together killed more than 240 people, leaders across Europe concluded that no capital was immune to attack. French officials in particular worried that their long history of fighting Algerian extremist groups, their government's ban on Muslim girls wearing head scarves in public schools and feelings of alienation among France's 6 million Muslims made Paris an obvious target. The country's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq would not protect it, they concluded.
Underscoring that concern, French police recently staged a mock hijacking of a tourist bus at the base of the Eiffel Tower, complete with police snipers in the tower's ironwork and commandos sliding down ropes. A SWAT team from the anti-terror unit and attack dogs stormed the bus to save people posing as passengers.
Sarkozy plans to submit a new anti-terrorism bill to France's Parliament this month that would heighten monitoring of international travel, expand electronic data and video surveillance, lengthen prison terms and otherwise strengthen French terrorism laws, which already are among the toughest in Europe, according to Guillaume Larrive, Sarkozy's legal adviser.