Fears of ter­ror­ism mount in France

Be­head­ing and at­tack on chem­i­cal plant high­light Is­lamist threat

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA an­thony.faiola@wash­post.com Virgile De­moustier con­trib­uted to this re­port.

lyon, france — Fol­low­ing Fri­day’s as­sault at a chem­i­cal plant that of­fi­cials de­scribed as a ter­ror­ist at­tack, France was hun­ker­ing down Satur­day for what politi­cians and an­a­lysts warned could be a pro­longed pe­riod of un­cer­tainty and fear.

Yassin Salhi, the 35-year-old de­liv­ery man who al­legedly be­headed his boss and at­tacked a chem­i­cal plant near this city, was re­fus­ing to co­op­er­ate with po­lice, author­i­ties said.

But a clearer pic­ture was emerg­ing of his back­ground, in­clud­ing sus­pected ties to an out­lawed French Is­lamist group. Salhi also had re­port­edly as­so­ci­ated with a French citizen who was wanted for ques­tion­ing in the 2009 bomb­ings of the Mar­riott and Ritz-Carl­ton ho­tels in Jakarta, In­done­sia.

The at­tack, how­ever, drove home the scope of the threat fac­ing France. Five months af­ter three home­grown ex­trem­ists killed 17 peo­ple in and around Paris, of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Manuel Valls, were al­ready warn­ing the na­tion to brace for more ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

De­spite a num­ber of steps taken to bol­ster coun­tert­er­ror­ism and de-rad­i­cal­iza­tion ef­forts here — in­clud­ing a sweep­ing sur­veil­lance law passed in re­cent days— an­a­lysts warned that the se­cu­rity prob­lem con­fronting France out­weighs the abil­ity of the na­tion’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices to cope.

“We prob­a­bly have 3,000 to 5,000 peo­ple in France who should be un­der sur­veil­lance,” said Jean-Charles Bris­ard, a coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­pert based in Paris. “And we’ve got 3,000 peo­ple, a few­more, do­ing that job. It’s just not pos­si­ble to watch ev­ery­one.”

France, which is home to Europe’s largest Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, has seen more of its na­tion­als and le­gal res­i­dents— more than 1,200 — leave in re­cent years to join rad­i­cal Is­lamists fight­ing in Syria and Iraq than have left from any other na­tion in the re­gion. In April, Valls said that French author­i­ties had, in re­cent months, foiled five ter­ror­ism plots.

On Fri­day, Salhi drove a de­liv­ery truck onto the grounds of an Amer­i­can-owned chem­i­cal fac­tory. He drove into a shed, ap­par­ently try­ing to spark a large ex­plo­sion. Only a mi­nor blast oc­curred, and mo­ments later, he was ap­pre­hended by a fire­fighter.

Dur­ing his at­tack, Salhi placed the sev­ered head of his boss on a fence post, along with flags car­ry­ing an Is­lamic dec­la­ra­tion of faith. One ques­tion author­i­ties were prob­ing was whether Salhi had com­mit­ted an in­de­pen­dent act, or had taken di­rec­tion or coun­sel from rad­i­cal for­eign or do­mes­tic groups.

Salhi had re­cently moved to the area, and of­fi­cials were try­ing to es­tab­lish whether he had pur­posely sought a job at the de­liv­ery firm be­cause its trucks had ac­cess to the plant. Dur­ing the at­tack, Salhi took a selfie with his boss’s sev­ered head and sent it to a Cana­dian phone num­ber, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

In Lyon, France’s third-largest city, which is known for sausages and fish dumplings, lo­cal res­i­dents spoke of a ris­ing sense of in­se­cu­rity.

“This could hap­pen any­where,” said Gérard Combe, 70, a lo­cal shop owner. “In air­ports, in malls, in crowded places. Is the state do­ing enough? It’s hard to say. The se­cret ser­vice are mon­i­tor­ing peo­ple, but it’s not enough.”

France is tak­ing steps to strengthen its coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions — some­times, crit­ics say, at the ex­pense of civil lib­er­ties. On Wed­nes­day, the Par­lia­ment passed a sur­veil­lance law al­low­ing its in­tel­li­gence ser­vices to col­lect vast amounts of In­ter­net meta data and to eaves­drop on ter­ror­ism sus­pects with­out court or­ders. The con­tro­ver­sial law, how­ever, will not take ef­fect un­til a court de­cides whether it is con­sti­tu­tion­ally sound.

In Jan­uary, Valls an­nounced that 2,680 coun­tert­er­ror­ism po­si­tions would be cre­ated in the coun­try’s se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus within the next three years. France has also sought to in­tro­duce more mod­er­ate imams into its pris­ons to com­bat rad­i­cal­iza­tion be­hind bars.

But some here are push­ing for far more con­tro­ver­sial steps. On Satur­day, Marine Le Pen — head of the far right Na­tional Front party — called for much more rad­i­cal mea­sures, in­clud­ing a freeze on the con­struc­tion of mosques and the mon­i­tor­ing of Is­lamic ser­mons.

Some in France’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity voiced con­cern that grow­ing fear of ter­ror­ism would em­power those with a broader an­tiIs­lamic agenda.

“In France, we feel iso­lated as Mus­lims,” said El­bagli Kadoug, 52, a maid who was wait­ing for a bus out­side the sub­ur­ban apart­ment build­ing where Salhi lived with his fam­ily. “Now they will want to point the fin­ger at us all.”

In ad­di­tion to Salhi, his wife and sis­ter also were in cus­tody.

French of­fi­cials had had Salhi un­der sur­veil­lance from 2006 to 2008, cit­ing his as­so­ci­a­tion with known rad­i­cals. Be­cause of lack of ev­i­dence, he faced a re­duced level of scru­tiny in re­cent years.

In 2014, French in­tel­li­gence com­piled a re­port on Salhi, ac­cord­ing to one per­son briefed on the doc­u­ment. It noted that he had, in the past, been linked to the mem­bers of For­sane Alizza, a group whose lead­ers faced ter­ror­ism charges in court this month. Po­lice raids of group mem­bers’ homes un­cov­ered a cache of weapons and a list of al­leged ter­ror­ism tar­gets.

LAU­RENT CIPRI­ANI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple in Bour­goin, south­east of Lyon, France, pay re­spects to the vic­tim of a de­cap­i­ta­tion whose sev­ered head was placed at a chem­i­cal plant dur­ing an at­tack al­legedly by a man with ties to Is­lamic rad­i­cals.

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Mem­bers of France’s spe­cial forces es­cort an uniden­ti­fied woman and child from a build­ing hous­ing the apart­ment of Yassin Salhi, the man ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of at­tack­ing a chem­i­cal plant near Lyon.

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