x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

French arrest 4 in Paris thought to be linked to Islamist extremists

Authorities detain four people in counter-terrorism operation targeting those suspected of trying to join Islamist extremists abroad.

PARIS // French authorities detained four people yesterday in a counterterrorism operation targeting those suspected of trying to join Islamist extremists abroad.

The raid in the Paris region comes amid fears that European extremists who once joined militant groups in Afghanistan or Iraq are now joining rebel fighters in the civil war in Syria and the conflict in Mali.

The Paris prosecutor's office said the four people were detained in yesterday's operation as part of an investigation into a French-Malian man arrested around the Mali-Niger border last year.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the operation targeted those seeking to join foreign fighters in the Mali region, and that French authorities are monitoring several cells or networks suspected of sending fighters abroad.

He said a "handful" of French militants are in the region around Mali, which France fears could become a haven for international terrorists. The French military launched a military intervention in Mali last month targeting Al-Qaeda-linked militants. The militants had seized power in the north last year and imposed harsh Islamic rule on residents, and then started advancing toward the capital. Other African countries are also taking part in the military intervention.

French authorities fear retaliatory attacks by those linked to the militants targeted in the Mali operation.

Meanwhile, French authorities say French extremists are also trying to join fighters in Syria, where anti-government forces are resisting a crackdown by President Bashar Al Assad's military. France has sided with the Syrian political opposition, saying Mr Al Assad has lost his legitimacy, but is trying to suppress any French people who seek to use the war in Syria to push extremist goals.

"Several dozen French people or French residents have already gone to Syria, often in groups controlled by Al Qaeda, and there are also some individuals who want to go to the Sahel, so we have to prevent them, arrest them and neutralise them," Mr Valls said.

The arrests were part of the investigation into Ibrahim Ouattara, a 24-year-old from the northern Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, the Paris prosecutor's office said. Mr Outtara, a dual French-Malian national, was arrested in November. He has a history of trips to regions where Islamist militants are active, including countries such as Yemen and Somalia.

Separately, a 27-year-old Frenchman was arrested in August in Niger and has since been handed over to authorities in France.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is one of three militant groups that have taken control of the northern half of Mali.