Though he was arrested last year, details emerged on Wednesday about an Algerian national living in France who had been in contact with a North African al-Qaeda affiliate to discuss launching terrorist attacks at some of France’s best-known tourist sites as well as the country's nuclear powerplants, French daily Le Parisien reported.
The news comes as France is to unveil tough new legislation that would bar air travel for suspected radicals and crackdown on jihadist recruitment websites.
In this latest case that will concern anti-terror police, the suspect identified only as Ali M. was arrested in late June 2013, as he tried to fly from France to Tunisia for a meeting with a top figure in the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb (AQIM). Authorities had been watching him for months.
Yet it was while investigating Ali M, who’s now in jail as the probe inches forward, that French police discovered a series of chilling emails the 29-year-old father of two had sent the unnamed terrorist leader.
When asked by the al-Qaeda boss to suggest some targets in France in April 2013, Ali M provided a lengthy list via encrypted email that noted the group should target France’s impoverished and “modest” income residents.
On his list of possible targets were “the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum” as well as the Avignon Theatre Festival, which he referred to by writing “the cultural events in the southern cities which draw thousands of Christians over the course of a month,” according to Le Parisien.
“The streets are filled with people and a simple grenade could wound dozens of people,” Ali M wrote, according to Le Parisien. “I’ll leave it to your imagination the results of a car bomb.”
Ali also saw possibilities in attacks on France’s network of nuclear power stations, airplanes as they were taking off as well as markets, nightclubs and bars. But out of fear of accidentally killing Muslims during an attack, he noted shopping malls should be avoided.
There is nothing to suggest the plans got beyond discussions, but nevertheless the emails will send alarm bells ringing for French authorities.
For French authorities the man, who’d been living in France for five years, was a true zealot determined to kill. Yet his lawyer has said Ali M had been somewhat brainwashed and got tangled up with people much more dangerous than he.
“The arrest was a relief for him,” Ali M’s attorney Daphné Pugliesi told Le Parisien.
The case is just the latest in France which has become a European centre for extremist activity. Last year alone there were 225 arrests for terrorism offenses and 63 attacks, including one that killed three Kurdish women in Paris.
The 225 arrests in France represented almost half of the total of arrests across Europe in 2013 and put the country far ahead of Spain, on 99, and the UK on 77.
In just one example police found weapons and explosive material in March 2013 at the homes of three suspects arrested in Marignane in southern France, who reportedly sought to emulate Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah.
Worry has also grown progressively in France over the hundreds of its residents who have joined the Syrian civil war to fight alongside jihadist militants. The fear is the Europeans will become battled-hardened and further radicalized while in combat and return home intent on carrying out attacks on French soil.
In response, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is to unveil new legislation on Wednesday that includes a ban on foreign travel by individuals suspected of being radicalized, for a duration of up to six months.
It can apply both to adults and minors. Under the proposal, their passports will be temporarily confiscated and invalidated, AFP reported.
The legislation provides for harder measures against online recruitment, by for instance asking Internet service providers to block access to sites "that provoke acts of terrorism or praise them" — modeled on existing rules against child pornography sites.
It will also allow investigators to use pseudonyms to go undercover in pro-jihadist sites.
France is also particularly concerned by so-called “lone wolf” terrorists who are homegrown and unaffiliated with larger radical networks. This breed of attacker is troubling because they harder to discover and may strike without much warning.
In June a Frenchman who'd spent time fighting with jihadists in Syria, who authorities called a "battle hardened lone wolf," was arrested for a shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels that killed several people.