Terror threat against France ‘unprecedented’

The threat of a jihadist attack in France has reached a level "without precedent" and new attacks are inevitable, according to top counter-terrorism officials.

Terror threat against France 'unprecedented'
Soldiers on patrol at the Eiffel Tower due to the ongoing terror threat in France. Photo: AFP

"The threat is permanent," said one high-level official in the defence ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Not one day goes by without an alert, the discovery of a network trying to send people to Syria or Iraq, or an intervention (by the security services).

"The number of targets has exploded. There are two or three thousand, maybe four thousand, people identified or suspected of evil intentions."

Nor are they all amateurs, the source added — many are highly educated. "They are pros, not drop-outs," he said.

Defence ministry specialists say the jihadists "use the best encryption and concealment techniques" and that security services are "playing catch-up".

"Every time we get our hands on a network, we see they are each using seven or eight SIM cards, changing them constantly. And the most cunning don't go near phones at all — they use messengers."

The biggest concerns relate to the estimated 200 individuals who have returned from training or fighting in areas held by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

"They have lost all inhibitions about violence," said another top counter-terrorism official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Security services place them under the tightest possible surveillance, but resources are limited and the authorities are also painfully aware that militants may wait years before acting.

That was the case with the Kouachi brothers who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January.

They had long-standing links to jihadist networks in Paris, and one had travelled to Yemen for training back in 2011, but they had gradually fallen off the radar of security services after laying low for several years.

Deadly competition

Officials also fear that competition between militant groups may drive them to ever-more brutal acts.

"Al-Qaeda needs to restore its prestige and will try to compete with IS with complex and major actions," said the official.

He highlighted the threat from an Al-Qaeda sub-group known as Khorasan, which is still thought to be planning a major airline attack.

One of Khorasan's key members is a French explosives expert, David Drugeon, who is thought to have survived an attempted assassination by a US drone strike last year.

That compares with the more conventional military threat posed by IS, the official said, "which is in the process of training commandos and sending them onto our territory with high-quality equipment".

Since the attacks in Paris in January that left 17 dead, France has been on the highest possible alert with thousands of police and troops deployed at sensitive sites, such as media headquarters and synagogues.

But counter-terrorism officials say this will do little to prevent an attack.

Unveiling new surveillance laws on Thursday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the jihadist threat was "constantly evolving," emanating as much from groups based abroad as from individuals present on French soil.

"The problem is not to know if there will be a new attack," said Valls. "It is to know when and where."

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US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.