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.
Larrive said that Sarkozy was "impressed by the ability of the U.K. authorities after the tragedy in July to identify the people who committed this act, and he decided to enhance French video laws." British police drew on subway cameras that recorded images of the bombers.
The French proposal would step up video surveillance in airports and train stations and for the first time permit it at private venues that could be targets, such as synagogues, Larrive said.
French officials traced their investigation of the terrorist recruiting and training network to the July arrests of three men on charges of armed robbery and racketeering. They soon discovered that the men were tied to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French acronym GSPC, the main armed Islamic movement in Algeria, a former French colony.
That led to the arrest of a top GSPC operative by Algerian police in early September, French officials said. The man told Algerian police that there was a cell in France that was going to attack the Paris subway, Orly airport south of the capital and the headquarters of the French intelligence service. The French put their investigation into high gear.
Police here staged more arrests, bringing the total to 16. Seven people have been released, and nine are being held on charges of associating with a terrorist organization and funding terrorism. As the investigation progressed, police discovered that the group was not planning specific attacks, but was organized to hit high-value targets of opportunity, senior law enforcement officials said.
The alleged head of the cell was Safe Bourrada, 35, a GSPC associate who in 1998 was convicted of taking part in a series of bomb attacks three years earlier, including one on the Paris subway that killed seven people, according to Jean-Francois Ricard, a top anti-terrorism judge in France. Bourrada was released from prison in 2003 after serving about half of a 10-year sentence and has been under surveillance by French police ever since.
Ricard said "our biggest concern right now" related to French citizens returning from the Middle East with terrorist training. He and other law enforcement officials declined to go into detail, saying the matter was sensitive and under investigation. But while the number of such cases may be small, he said, there was a steady stream of people going back and forth.
"What worries me the most is the behavior of GSPC, which has described France as their number one target," he said referring to a recent statement by the group's leader, Abdelmalek Droukdal, also known as Abu Mossab Abdelwadoud. That is particularly ominous because the group is "tightly linked" with Iraq's top al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, Ricard said, making an attack on France "inevitable."