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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Police raid French Muslim centre over terror links

Leaders of the Zahra centre in northern France probed over links to Hezbollah

The founder of the Zahra centre speaks to reporters after the raid. AFP
The founder of the Zahra centre speaks to reporters after the raid. AFP

French counter-terrorist police on Tuesday raided a Muslim centre with close ties to the Iranian regime and recovered weapons in an operation prompted by suspicions over its leadership’s links to terrorist organisations.

Authorities froze the assets of the Zahra centre in the northern coastal city of Dunkirk, three other organisations and four of its officials, including a prominent Shiite leader who has met with senior members of the Iranian government. Eleven people were arrested in the early morning police operation.

French interior minister Gerard Collomb said that three of those detained were arrested for possession of illegal weapons, but did not clarify what was found. He said a prayer room at the centre was being closed.

The raid of the centre and a dozen homes came on the day that the French authorities increased the pressure on Tehran with a series further financial sanctions against key figures linked to a failed bomb plot on an opposition rally near France on June 30.

Authorities said that the centre’s leaders “pronounced support for several terrorist organisations and in favour of movements advocating ideas contrary to the values of the republic”.

Zahra head Yahia Gouasmi has been photographed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president, and the centre has long been in the cross-hairs of the French security forces. It was previously raided in 2009.

Mr Gouasmi told French television that the weapons found during the raid on Tuesday were for the security of the centre.

Mr Gouasmi, 68, an Algerian, was also well-known to the authorities and was arrested in the city in 1984, on suspicion of plotting the assassination of anti-regime backers in France and smuggling arms between France and Belgium, according to media reports.

He has also been linked to a British police operation after the discovery of a plot to kill the Iranian exile poet and newspaper publisher, Hadi Khorsandi, in the mid-1980s.

Mr Khorsandi, who still lives in Britain, told the National that he was told to move out of London to a safe house because of an apparent threat to his life after one of his poems that enraged the clerical leadership. The suspected team of assassins was arrested by police and deported, according to Mr Khorsandi.

“Five people were walking around the street when I was taking my children to school,” he said. “The plan was to kill.”

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Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah refers to the Zahra centre in France as being the creation of one of the party’s “students”, according to French media reports.

The centre's website describes the goal of the association as "to make known the message of Islam through the regard of the Prophet and his family."

The centre also makes no secret of having created the Anti-Zionist Party, a political organisation that aims to counter what it says is Zionist lobbying in France.

Mr Gouasmi has shared a platform with the firebrand French comedian Dieudonne, who has a history of anti-Semitic comments. The comedian was given a suspended jail term for glorifying terrorism following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks.

The Zahra centre denied that it had anything to do with terrorism, saying that it always acted with “full transparency,” according to a statement published on the website of the Anti-Zionist party. "Everything is false," said Jamel Tahiri, 43, one of the four men whose funds were being frozen. "We're transparent. Everything is on internet."

Political commentator Potkin Azarmehr said: “For France, this is another reminder that it cannot allow these centres to go unchecked just because they claim to be religious set-ups. The same should apply to other European states.”