Nine men and one woman aged 32 to 69 were arrested in raids across France late on Saturday in places as far-flung as the Mediterranean island of Corsica and Versailles in the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France.
The suspects, whose detention was extended late Monday for a further 48 hours, had an “ill-defined plan to commit a violent act targeting people of the Muslim faith,” one source close to the probe said.
Police have linked the ten to a little-known group called Action des Forces Operationnelles (Operational Forces Action), which urges French people to
combat Muslims, or what it calls “the enemy within”.
Rifles, handguns and homemade grenades were found during searches in the Paris area, the Mediterranean island of Corsica and the western Charentes-Maritimes region.
The group's suspected leader, identified as Guy S., was a monitor for the far-right National Front during last year's presidential and legislative elections, according to the mayor of the western town of Tonnay-Charente.
Photo: RAID police officers
But a local official for the party, since rebaptised the National Rally, said the man, a retired police officer, did not figure on party membership lists and was not among the party's known “supporters”.
Party leader Marine Le Pen welcomed the arrests, saying “any terrorist attack targeting people must obviously be repelled with the utmost force.”
So, what's the story of the AFO and how dangerous are they?
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in France a group called Volunteers for France whose goal it was to overcome the so-called inadequacies of the French state in overcoming the jihadist threat was started, Midi Matthieu Suc, a journalist at Mediapart who has investigated the far-right cell, told Europe 1.
The group got around any legal barriers by calling itself an association, he added.
However some members believed the group didn't go far enough to achieve its goals and needed to take “violent and concrete action”, Suc said.
Police outside the home of Guy S., the alleged leader of a group linked with the ultra right 'AFO' . Photo: AFP
That's how, in autumn 2017, the AFO came into being.
The group's recruits include current or former “soldiers, gendarmes, policemen” as well as people working in the medical world, said Suc.
“The projects were not very clear,” he said, adding that in secret meetings, members would discuss people who had been sentenced for terrorist crimes and were being released, saying that they had to be killed.
The group, some of whose members belonged to shooting clubs, according to reports in the French press, has been linked to 'survivalism' — the practising of outdoor survival skills as a sport or hobby which can sometimes be more politically motivated and linked to the survival of a social or national group.
“In the universe of the ultra-right, there is a paranoid rhetoric of the apocalypse, according to which society has already been invaded,” political scientist specialising in the far-right Jean-Yves Camus said. “In short, [they consider it to be] a situation that justifies — in the eyes of its militants — preparation for an armed struggle.”
The “Guerre de France” (War for France) website of the shadowy Operational Forces Action (See below) depicts an apocalyptic battle scene under the Eiffel Tower, and claims to prepare “French citizen-soldiers for combat on national territory”.
Photo: Screenshot from AFO's website
And what threat do they pose?
Suc from Mediapart believes that the threat of an imminent act would have pushed investigators to intervene.
“They [investigators] sped up in recent days because the DGSI discovered that one of the men arrested had set up an explosives manufacturing laboratory,” he said, adding that investigators will still have to determine the level of progress and maturity of a possible terrorist plot.
The DGSI has described the awakening of the ultra-right in France with small groups “bonded” over the denunciation of the “Islamization of France” and thriving on fears related to the jihadist threat.
The way the arrests took place with the help of RAID, an elite unit of the national police, indicates that there was “an urgency to the situation,” police specialist Dominique Rizet told BFM TV.
“A man was arrested while dining at a restaurant in Versailles,” he added. “An arrest at the weekend in the evening is rare.”
In 2016, former boss of the DGSI Patrick Calvar said: “The ultra-right is waiting for a confrontation [with radical Islamism].”
Calvar went on to say that he thought “this confrontation” would take place and that it was a question of “when” not “if”.
However political scientist and far-right expert Camus, who estimates there are around a thousand militants belonging to the ultra-right in France, has been much more measured in his response.
“It's the beginning of their custody, it will be necessary to wait until it ends to know more about the progress of the project. The DGSI can also be preventive: sometimes they prefer to fall on a group which isn't too advanced in its projects, rather than let it develop.”
The house of Guy S., the alleged leader of a group linked with the ultra right 'AFO' . Photo: AFP
Anti-Islamic violence on the rise
Unsurprisingly, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has expressed its “deep concern” over Saturday's arrests, calling on “all political leaders to denounce with the greatest firmness the violent actions directed against the Muslims of France”.
“I'm not surprised by these arrests because the current climate of Islamophobia encourages this sort of passage from words to deeds,” said Abdallah Zekri of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
The Council said it was particularly worried about the security of the country's roughly 2,500 mosques.
France remains on high alert following a wave of jihadist attacks which have killed more than 240 people since 2015.
Officials have urged people not to confuse the actions of radicalised individuals with those of France's estimated six million Muslims — but anti-Islamic violence is on the rise.
France's TF1 television said the group planned to target radicalised imams and Islamist prisoners after their release from jail, as well as veiled women
in the street chosen at random.
France registered 72 violent anti-Muslim acts last year, up from 67 in 2016.
In a statement, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb emphasised the “total mobilisation” of security services “to prevent any disturbance to public order and any threat to people and property, especially those targeting a particular religion.”