Intelligence analysts and academics warn recent French success in identifying would-be jihadists does not mean they are winning.
France's war on home-grown extremism far from over
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // Intelligence analysts and academic observers are warning that recent French success in identifying home-grown would-be jihadists does not mean the war against extremism is being won.
By some estimates, as many as 300 Islamists holding French nationality could be considered potential threats to France's domestic security while a further 1,000 are engaged in conflicts around the world.
Twelve people were arrested on suspicion of belonging to a jihadist cell, several of whose members are said by prosecutors to be recent converts to Islam, in weekend police raids in the Paris region, Strasbourg and on the Riviera at Cannes.
The alleged ringleader, Jérémie Louis-Sidney, 33, a convert of French Caribbean origin, was shot dead having, according to police, opened fire when officers burst into his flat in Strasbourg. His mother and sister have begun legal action requiring the authorities to justify the killing.
The raids are widely seen in France as a breakthrough in attempts to prevent bombings or attacks similar to those carried out in March by Mohamed Merah in the southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban that killed seven people. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, said yesterday "tens, hundreds" of others were under surveillance with more arrests probable.
Action by the authorities coincided with comments, published in The National and the French media, from the Moroccan-born mother of the first of the victims of those killings, Imad Ibn Ziaten, that Merah was regarded as a "martyr and hero of Islam" by some young French Muslims.
Alain Chouet, a former head of intelligence at France's general directorate for external security, estimates that between 200 and 300 individuals in the country fit Merah's ideological and psychiatric profile, a combination of allegiance to Al Qaeda and signs of an unbalanced mind. He told the television channel TF1 it would take 15 officers to maintain round-the-clock monitoring of a single suspect.
Louis-Sidney, like Merah before him, had a criminal record, notably in his case for drug trafficking, and is believed by government officials and investigators to have become radicalised in jail. He disappeared from the police radar in 2010 but DNA traces linked to him were found after a grenade exploded in an attack by two hooded men on a Jewish grocery last month.
One of those alleged by investigators to have fallen under his influence was Yann Nsaku, 19, considered a promising footballer until his career was cut short by injury. He was arrested as a suspected member of Louis-Sidney's cell in Cannes in front of his parents, originally from Congo. A number of the other suspects were also held in the resort, where Louis-Sidney lived after his release from prison.
Jean-Charles Brisard, an international intelligence and security consultant, said French citizens attracted to the jihadist cause were active in a number of countries including Syria, Somalia and Pakistan.
"The real problem arises on their return to France because they are liable then to commit attacks," he told the newspaper, Nice-Matin, whose circulation area includes Cannes.
"That's the case with the network that has just been dismantled as we know it had members belonging to a so-called Syrian branch, composed of young French combatants in Syria."
The threat to France was not new, Mr Brisard added, but the country was "obviously even less free of menace now" as a result of tensions created after the Arab Spring and by the prospect of French participation in military intervention in Mali.
The French president, Francois Hollande, said yesterday that France would supply logistical, material and political support for a UN-backed African military intervention. He is urging the UN Security Council to authorise the creation of a West African force to defeat Islamists who have seized control of northern Mali.
Mathieu Guidere, professor of Islamic studies at the Toulouse II-Le Mirail university and the author of several books of which the most recent is The New Terrorists, was unsurprised by the criminal backgrounds of some suspects.
"Previously, Islamists claimed honesty and integrity and did not recruit delinquents," he told the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. "Now, that's over, the two worlds [violent crime and jihadism] are intermixed. At a given moment, the delinquent leaves the police radar but doesn't yet figure on that of antiterrorist forces."
He referred to a question posed repeatedly in recent months - "are there other Mohamed Merahs in France?" - and said: "Now, we have the answer."
For Mr Guidere, the notion of the "home-grown terrorist" is also new because, in the past, militants willing to kill and die were more likely to come from outside. "These new terrorists are children of their time, that of the internet."
There has been no official suggestion that the network involved in Saturday's raids was about to carry out specific attacks, though a list of Jewish institutions that might have been targets was reportedly seized.
One man arrested at Torcy in the Paris region was allegedly in possession of a loaded rifle ready for use when he was intercepted at dawn on Saturday after leaving prayers.