2 men arrested near Paris planned terror attack, wanted to join ISIS

Two men who were arrested following the discovery of explosive materials and components at an apartment in a Paris suburb of Villejuif wanted to make a bomb to commit a terrorist attack, Paris’ prosecutor has said.

 

“They had agreed to commit an attack on the [French] territory to take revenge on the coalition but they had not worked out any specific plan to date,” Francois Mollins said at a news conference Sunday.

The prosecutor added that one of the suspects admitted the two considered attacking soldiers who were deployed to locations deemed vulnerable for the terrorist attacks. The plot was uncovered as part of Operation Sentinel that was launched following the November 2015 Paris attacks and is part of the ongoing state of emergency.

Both suspects admitted that they wanted to join Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) and leave for Syria or Iraq as early as in 2015 but they could not because of a “lack contacts and financial means.” The pair added they were planning to carry out an attack in the name of the terrorist group.

One of the suspects identified as Frederique L, 37, was “in direct contact” with Rachid Kassim, a French jihadist, who joined IS and left France to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Kassim, who was killed in a US airstrike in February, is suspected of being the instigator of several terrorist attacks on French soil, including the double murder of police officers in Magnaville in June 2016 and the attack on the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church in northern France.

On Wednesday, 105 grams of TATP were accidentally discovered in an apartment located in Villejuif along with a liter of sulfuric acid, a liter of hydrochloric acid as well as 8 liters of acetone and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

Mollins said “the substances discovered at the scene could be used to produce between three and four kilos of TATP.” Investigators also found components needed to make a detonator, including wires, electric batteries, match heads and bulbs from Christmas wreaths.

A USB device containing videos showing a series of explosives tests on the terrace of the Villejuif apartment raided by the police was also found at the scene. Islamic State propaganda videos on a computer belonging to one of the suspects and leaflets with inscriptions in Arabic were also found in the apartment.

Muslim workers at Paris airport sue after fired for refusing to shave beards

An industrial tribunal will hear the case of four Muslim former security guards at Orly airport who say they were discriminated against when sacked for refusing to shave off their beards in the wake of the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

Soon after those jihadist attacks that left 130 dead, management from the Securitas security firm summoned several male staff members working for it at Orly, all of them Muslim and all of them bearded.

They were told that with passengers on edge, it would be appreciated if they could all trim or shave off their beards to adhere to the firm’s strict grooming policy.

Most of the men, who worked at the security points where passengers and their hand luggage are screened, complied, but four did not, and launched discrimination complaints.

Their case is to be heard at an industrial tribunal in Bobigny.

The men were suspended a week after refusing to shave and some months later received a letter telling them they were sacked. Securitas denies any discrimination, and argues that the ex-employees simply refused to adhere to company rules stating that facial hair needed to be kept short and well-groomed.

The tribunal hearing is likely to be dominated by arguments over what length of a beard is “acceptable” and whether a beard can be considered a religious symbol.

The European Court of Justice ruled in March that companies should be allowed to to ban their staff from wearing visible religious symbols.

Security was tightened at Orly airport in the wake of the November 13th attacks in Paris, with authorities screening all workers at the two Paris airports – Charles de Gaulle and Orly.They decided to revoke “secure zone access” to almost 70 workers, with the head of Aeroports de Paris citing the main reason as “cases of radicalization”.

 

Grand Mosque of Paris denounces ‘vile terrorist act’

On Friday, the Grand Mosque of Paris denounced the “vile terrorist act” that caused 14 deaths in Barcelona.

“After London, Paris, and other cities, the barbarity has once again returned, this time hitting Barcelona. The Grand Mosque of Paris firmly condemns the blind violence that attacks that which symbolizes tolerance and the vivre-ensemble,” wrote the mosque’s rector Dalil Boubakeur in a communiqué.

“This vile terrorist act must strengthen all those who fight obscurantism and radicalism in their determination to eradicate that which feeds these deviations,” said Boubakeur, who extended his condolences to the victims and their families.

 

Macron proposes extension of counterterrorism powers

President Macron’s government proposed an expansion of authorities’ powers to fight terrorism, alarming civil liberties advocates even as defenders said the plans would help keep French citizens safe.

The draft law was introduced after a series of attempted terrorist strikes in Paris and Brussels in recent weeks and several bloody attacks in Britain that were claimed by Islamic State-inspired militants.

The changes proposed Thursday seek to wind down a state of emergency that gave French security officials broad powers and was imposed after the November 2015 Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives. Some of those powers would be made permanent, including the ability to temporarily shutter places of worship that promote extremism and conduct searches with fewer restrictions. The draft also strips some oversight powers from judges and gives security officials more latitude to act without judicial review.

 “I think we have achieved a good balance,” Interior Minister Gérard Collomb told reporters after a meeting of the French cabinet Thursday during which he proposed the law. “The aim is to put an end to the state of emergency.”

 

Macron and his predecessor, François Hollande, have sought to end the state of emergency, which has been extended several times since the 2015 attacks. It is slated to expire July 15, although Macron has asked for it to be prolonged until November.

The proposal “tries to preserve the balance between controlling terrorism and respecting liberties,” French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said Wednesday on France’s TF1 television station. “We cannot give up what we are.” 

He acknowledged that the law was a work in progress, saying that consultation with parliament, where Macron has a majority, would “enrich the text.” Macron last month announced the formation of a terrorism task force that would streamline communication among branches of intelligence and law enforcement, an idea praised by terrorism experts.

 

Since November 2015, French police have conducted over 4,000 searches and raids using emergency powers and placed about 400 people under house arrest, according to statistics collected by Amnesty International.

 

Human Rights Watch criticizes France’s counterterrorism bill

Counter-terrorism legislation proposed by the French government will “normalize abusive practices,” undermine personal freedoms, and may fuel prejudice against the Muslim minority, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

A bill presented last week would enshrine curbs on fundamental rights in law if approved by parliament, the rights group said.

Newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron wants the legislation to replace temporary emergency powers in place since Islamist militants attacked Paris in 2015.

 “Instead of truly ending France’s 19-month temporary state of emergency, the government is making some of its far-reaching powers permanent, but with little effective court oversight,” HRW’s Kartik Raj said.

“France needs to find a way to end its state of emergency without normalizing abusive practices.”

France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, has grappled with a response to homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks that have killed more than 230 people since early 2015.

The draft bill envisages extending police powers to stop and search people or conduct house searches. The law would also give officials more discretion in deciding when to invoke a risk of terrorism as justification for curbs on freedoms.

Mr. Macron has assured the European Court of Human Rights the legislation would respect public freedoms.

“As the text stands, it [the law] could, for instance, be used arbitrarily to prohibit any meeting at which ideas or theological concepts associated with conservative interpretations of Islam, such as Salafism, are expressed regardless of whether there is any demonstrable connection to criminal activity,” HRW said.

“Poorly worded laws that are likely to lead to closing solely Muslim places of worship may also help feed anti-Muslim rhetoric and prejudice prevalent in wider society,” it said.

Several mosques have been shut temporarily under the state of emergency, imposed after Islamist gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people in a concert hall and restaurants and bars in Paris in November 2015.

Inside French Prisons, A Struggle to Combat Radicalization

With 2,500 inmates, the penitentiary institution of Fresnes, about 20 miles south of Paris, is one of the largest prisons in Europe. Like most French prisons, Fresnes is overcrowded. Built in the late 19th century, its tiny cells, each meant for one prisoner, most often house three.

Inmates scream curses and catcalls from their barred windows as I visit a small, empty sports yard ensconced between cell blocks. Plastic bags and punctured soccer balls are caught in the surrounding concertina wire.

The prisoners here yelled out in just this way back in November 2015, refusing to honor a minute of silence for the victims of the terrorist attacks on Paris cafes and the Bataclan concert hall.

Fresnes prison director Philippe Obligis says he began to see a radicalization problem here well before those attacks took place.

“There were some radical Muslims who were putting huge pressure on regular Muslims to adopt a certain kind of behavior,” he says. “Like taking a shower with their clothes on and not listening to music or watching TV.”

In 2014, Fresnes became the first French prison to separate radicalized inmates from the general prison population — they were put in an entirely separate wing, one person to each cell, and had different guards from the other prisoners.

After 2015, which began with the January attacks at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, and ended with the Bataclan attack in November, some other French prisons began separating inmates too. Several of the terrorists who killed nearly 150 people that year were common criminals who had become radicalized in prison.

In 2016, the French government put money into a rehabilitation program for radicals deemed not too far gone. The prisoners in these new anti-radicalization units received visits from psychologists and historians; they had the chance to attend some workshops or receive some training.

The radical units were controversial, especially after two guards at one prison were attacked in September of last year. In November, the French interior minister announced an end to the program.

Instead, the French government boosted security around the most dangerous prisoners — both radicals and not. And intelligence collecting in prisons was beefed up. A bureau of central intelligence for prisons was created earlier this year.

Around 350 French prisoners are serving jail terms for terrorist-related offenses. And a further 1,340 inmates convicted of regular crimes are identified as radicalized.

Businessman Pierre Botton went to jail for white collar crime in the 1990s and founded Together Against Recidivism, an organization devoted to improving the lives of prisoners. He says it’s nearly impossible to think about reforming in jail because prisoners are mainly just struggling to survive.

He believes radicals should be separated in different prisons entirely, because otherwise, they’ll inevitably interact with the rest of the prison population. He notes what happened when the only surviving terrorist from the Paris Bataclan attacks landed in a French jail last year.

“When Salah Abdeslam arrived, they clapped,” says Botton. “Do you understand what I’m saying? When he arrived in the jail, they clapped. They applauded.”

Botton says criminals like Abdeslam are icons in jails in the Paris region, where up to 70 percent of inmates identify as Muslim. Keeping records on the religion and ethnicity of French citizens is illegal, so there are no official statistics. But Botton says about 70 percent of prisoners in the Paris region observe the Muslim festival of Ramadan.

“So when you put guys like this who represent a certain ideology in the heart of a prison, surrounded by 4,000 inmates, there’s a huge risk they’ll contaminate the others,” he says.

Yannis Warrach, a Muslim cleric who works in his spare time at a top-security prison in Normandy, says prison is so brutal, inmates can only survive if they’re part of a gang. He has seen how the radicals recruit newcomers.

Imam Yannis Warrach helps prisoners resist radicalization at a top-security prison in Normandy. He says radicals recruit newcomers by “brainwash[ing]” them “little by little.”

“The ones who preach and proselytize will at first be nice to a detainee. They see his desperation,” he says. “They’ll befriend him, give him what he needs. Then they’ll say it’s destiny. They’ll say that God has a mission for him. And little by little, they brainwash him, telling him French society has rejected him, he can’t get a job because of his Arab last name, and he was always put in the worst classes at school.

“The problem is,” says Warrach, “it’s often true.”

Warrach says these young men must have hope for a different future to break out of the spiral of failure. He says French leaders have failed to change the socioeconomic factors that keep many French people of Muslim descent on the bottom rungs of the ladder.

Another big problem, he says, is the prevalence of hard-line, Salafist reading material in jails — often French translations of Saudi, Wahhabist tracts that advocate literal, strict interpretation of religious doctrine.

“I work to debunk this stuff,” says Warrach. “I give inmates under pressure a historical context of the faith and another narrative of Islam.”

He says that because of the pressure from radicals, who consider him an agent of the French government, he has to meet secretly with inmates who desperately want his help. Instead of meeting in rooms designated for religious worship, which are open, they meet in special prison visiting rooms for inmates’ lawyers, where no one can observe them.

Because of its strict separation of religion and state, Warrach says France is the only country in Europe where being a prison cleric is not considered a profession. He says he only receives a small stipend, but that he can’t build a life around it — there are no retirement plans or other benefits. Because of this, there can’t be an imam at the prison every day, which creates a huge void, he says. And it leaves plenty of room for uninformed, extremist interpretations of Islam in French prisons.

Union of French Mosques condemns Manchester attack

The Union of French mosques released the following statement regarding the recent Manchester attacks:

“The Union of French Mosques (UMF) condemns with the greatest vigor the terror attack carried out in Manchester, Monday May 22, leaving 22 victims, including children and a little 8 year old girl, as well as teenagers. Many of those hurt are in critical condition and for some, the injuries are life-threatening.

The UMF extends its sincerest condolences to the victims’ families and hopes for a prompt recovery for those hurt, and wishes to express its support for and solidarity with the British people.

Only a few days before Ramadan, a symbol of peace, sharing, solidarity and compassion, the terrorist group Daesh carried out this craven and despicable act against all of humanity, which is a new affront to Muslims around the world and their faith.”
Paris, May 23, 2017

Muslim organizations celebrate Macron victory

 

Following the announcement of Emmanuel Macron’s victory, the Grand Mosque of Paris released the following statement:

“The Grand Mosque of Paris sees signs of a France that has reconciled its spiritual and religious differences in order to respond in unity to the threats of division that weigh on our Nation. It’s a sign for France’s Muslims of a clear endorsement of the vivre-ensemble that is grounded in republican, humanist, patriotic, democratic, and secular values.”

The Grand Mosque of Lyon thanked those who were “conscious of the danger a discourse of hate and rejection of the other has caused France.” The French Council of the Muslims Faith congratulated Macron “for his victory, which opens our country to a future of fraternity and solidarity.”

 

Grand Mosque of Paris calls on Muslims to vote Macron

“The Grand Mosque of Paris and its National Federation (FGMP) calls on France’s Muslims to vote en masse for the candidate Emmanuel Macron who, regarding Republican values and the strict application of laïcité, personifies the route to hope and confidence in the spiritual forces and citizens of the nation” said Dalil Boubakeur, the mosque’s rector.

Before the second round “which will determine the future of France and its minorities, all Frenchmen must remain united against the threat of dangerous xenophobic beliefs in order to sustain national unity,” Boubakeur added. The Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) also tweeted for “Republican mobilization,” before the second round of elections.

Terror attack at Orly airport

A “radicalized Muslim” known to security services has been shot dead after attempting to steal a soldier’s gun at Paris Orly Airport.

The 39-year-old French citizen, identified as Ziyed Ben Belgacem, shot at police officers manning a checkpoint in northern Paris with an “air pistol” before launching the airport attack, the French interior minister said.

During a visit to the airport, Bruno Le Roux said one officer was shot during the routine check and was undergoing hospital treatment for injuries to his face.

“We can link the [airport attacker’s] identity with a check carried out at Garges-les-Gonesse by a patrol in Stains this morning,” he added.

 

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference on Saturday evening that at the airport, Belgacem yelled he wanted to die in the name of Allah and said “whatever happens, there will be deaths”.

Mr Molins said the attacker held an air pistol to a soldier’s head and used her as a shield. He apparently wanted to use her weapon to shoot people in the busy airport.

Contrary to earlier reports by French officials, Mr Molins said the attacker did wrench away her powerful military-grade assault rifle.

The soldier’s colleagues fired three bursts – eight rounds in all – when they killed him.

Belgacem had a lengthy criminal history of violence, robbery and drug offences but was not on the “fiche S” list of terror threats, despite being investigated by the DGSI as a potential jihadi after indications of Islamist radicalisation emerged in 2015.

Mr Molins said three people were being held in police custody, and that Belgacem’s choice of target and evidence that he had been radicalised justified launching a terrorism investigation.

Belgacem is believed to have been radicalized in prison and was put under surveillance after being freed, although it was unclear when monitoring stopped.

Prosecutors said no evidence of extremism was uncovered in a search of his home, which was among scores raided in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks.

“The individual’s identity is known to the police and intelligence services.” Belgacem’s father and brother, as well as a cousin, have been detained for questioning.