In Paris, first arrest of Islamist suspects since start of Mali war
Three of the four men arrested on Tuesday were Franco-Congolese and one was Malian, according to police sources.
French police¬†arrested four suspected¬†Islamist¬†militants near¬†Paris today as part of an investigation into the recruitment of volunteers by Al Qaeda insurgents in¬†Mali, French interior minister Manuel Valls¬†said.
France's intervention in¬†Mali¬†to rid its former colony of¬†Islamist¬†fighters has prompted the authorities to increase security against possible reprisal attacks on its interests in mainland¬†France¬†and abroad.
Anti-terrorism judge¬†Marc Trevidic, who is in charge of the operation, and who is known for an independent streak among French jurists, told Reuters last month that¬†France¬†needed more robust local policing, better intelligence sharing and the ability to infiltrate small radical¬†Islamist¬†groups if it hopes to fight new security threats on its soil.
Analysts say the insurgency that seized the north of¬†Mali¬†is paving the way for attacks on¬†France¬†as more French Muslims of African origin are supposedly energized or finding a cause or grievance in the conflict.
"France¬†is really being singled out at the moment," said¬†Anne Giudicelli, consultant with national security specialists Terrorisc.
"It's being accused of wanting to occupy Muslim territory and that could clearly push some individuals to take action, or encourage others to build up a network," she told Reuters.
Three of the four men arrested on Tuesday were¬†Franco-Congolese¬†and one was Malian, according to police sources.¬†
Mr. Vall, the interior minister, said the arrests had come after a long investigation into Al Qaeda recruitment rings led by Mr. Trevidic.
"There is an operation ongoing in the¬†Paris¬†region, conducted by the DCRI [domestic security service], which comes after the arrest of an individual a few months ago on the border between¬†Mali¬†and¬†Niger," he told BFM TV.
That man was a¬†Franco-Congolese¬†social worker named Cedric Lobo, 27, who was arrested in¬†Niamey, the capital of¬†Niger, while trying to reach the historic Malian city of¬†Timbuktu¬†to join the rebel group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the source said.
He was subsequently extradited to¬†France, where he was charged with planning attacks and remanded in custody.
'Enemy from within'
French nationals drawn to violent militant groups had a number of points in common, said Valls, who has taken a hard line on law and order and has warned that France¬†is facing an "enemy from within."
"The profiles are often individuals that have had problems with the law, been involved in drug trafficking, and have sometimes converted to radical Islam either in prison, through the Internet or by travelling overseas," Valls told reporters.
French anti-terrorism judges have opened a number of preliminary investigations in the past year into individuals suspected of links to what they say are Malian terrorist cells.
Police have stopped several individuals trying to travel from¬†France¬†to the Sahel, Valls said. The Sahel is the vast swath of semi-arid territory stretching from¬†Senegal¬†in west Africa to Eritrea¬†in the east - and has been identified as a base for traffickers and¬†Islamist¬†militants.
He said a "handful" of French nationals had already joined Al Qaeda-linked groups.
"There is no direct threat, but there are threats on the Internet, on social networks, calling on people to wage war, to attack French interests," Valls said.
France¬†has tightened security in public buildings and on public transport, although it has kept its security alert level at red, signifying "probable threats", one down from the scarlet level which means "definite threats".
Highlighting the threat overseas,¬†Paris¬†has raised its travel warning for its citizens across the Muslim world.
The embassy in¬†Tunis¬†on Monday confirmed that a French school in the Tunisian capital had been sprayed with graffiti warning of reprisals after¬†France's intervention in¬†Mali.
Additional reporting by Nicolas Bertin, John Irish and Vicky Buffery; writing by Nicholas Vinocur and John Irish; editing by Jon Boyle.