France hunts for church terror plot accomplices

French police were desperately hunting on Thursday for possible accomplices to an Algerian whose plan to attack churches was foiled when his arsenal of weapons was uncovered purely by chance. Prosecutors believe at least two individuals were helping the student.

France hunts for church terror plot accomplices
Kalashnikovs, the likes of which were found in the car of the student behind the Paris church terror plot. File Photo: AFP

Did the 24-year-old IT student Sid Ahmed Ghlam plan to attack churches in Paris alone or was he aided by others?

That's the question counter-terror police in France are desperately asking on Thursday, the day after Ghlam's terrifying plot to attack churches in the Villejuif suburb of Paris was revealed by the government.

The revelations about a planned attack that again escaped the radar of French intelligence services have highlighted the danger for France which is often singled out by jihadists as a prime target.

In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks French criminologist and security and terrorism expert Alain Bauer told journalists there was no such thing as a "lone wolf" terrorist.

 “The expression ‘lone wolves’ is a good way for intelligence services to explain how they failed,” Bauer said.

Counter-terrorism chiefs in France may have been looking at another failure to stop an attack if Ghlam had not accidentally shot himself in the leg on the morning, police believe he was due to strike.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said that Ghlam had told police "far-fetched" tales of how he had received the bullet wound to his leg, such as that he had shot himself while trying to throw his weapons into the Seine river.

Since then however he has exercised his right to silence.

Investigators are now focusing on who may have helped Ghlam and who supplied him with his arsenal of weapons.

At least one person close to him, believed to be his partner, remains in police custody for questioning.

Unconfirmed reports in the French press said he picked up the weapons, including several Kalashnikovs, from someone in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay Sous-Bois.

The weapons were stashed in a Renault Mégane car, for which Ghlam was given directions and a set of keys. He then took the arms, bullet proof vests and pistols, back to his student lodgings in the 13th arrondissement in Paris.

Analysis of his communications equipment indicated Ghlam "was in touch with another person who could be in Syria on how to carry out an attack, with the latter clearly asking him to target a church," said Molins.

As well as the four Kalashnikovs, a handgun, ammunition, bulletproof vests, communications equipment and €2,0000 in cash found by police at Ghlam's apartment, prosecutor Molins said multiple papers in Arabic were found that made reference to Islamic State militant group and al-Qaeda.

It is unclear whether Ghlam was in contact with anyone specifically linked to these two terror groups.

"This type of individual does not act alone," said Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Investigators will be desperately trying to track down the contact in Syria, fearing he/she may be handing out instructions to other jihadists based in France, who may be ready to strike.

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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.