Five men arrested this week in two French cities were planning a terror attack in France as early as next week and were receiving their orders from an Islamic State group member based in Iraq or Syria, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Friday. The five were arrested on Sunday, four of them in the eastern city of Strasbourg, and one in the southern city of Marseille.
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Molins said the Strasbourg “commando” of four was plotting a terror act on Dec. 1 but that investigators haven’t yet determined which was “the specific chosen target among all those considered by the group.” He said the five men were “given guidance remotely” from an IS member based in Iraq or Syria and that they had a “clear will to find and to identify targets to commit an act in the very short term”. Investigators found communications of GPS coordinates on one suspect’s USB stick.
The five men, he said, “had common instructions to obtain weapons, instructions given by a person from the Iraqi-Syrian zone through encrypted applications popular among terrorists.” The four arrested in Strasbourg were two French citizens both aged 37, a 36-year-old Franco-Tunisian and a 35-year-old Franco-Moroccan. Two of them had been convicted several times in France. The man arrested in Marseille was a 46-year-old Moroccan. All were detained after a “long-term” investigation by French intelligence services.
The four Strasbourg suspects are long-time friends, seeing each other regularly, “all four communicating in a closed network through a dedicated telephone line,” Molins said. But they weren’t in touch with the Marseille suspect. After being held in custody for five days, the five were moved at midday to the Paris court house and were to be presented later Friday to counter-terrorism investigating judges. The Paris prosecutor asked magistrates to hand the five preliminary charges of taking part in a “terrorist criminal association” and to jail them.
The suspects were in possession or in search of weapons and financing, Molins said. Among weapons seized during home searches in Strasbourg were two handguns, two automatic rifles, several cartridge clips and dozens of cartridges of different calibers. On the USB key, investigators also found instructions for a money handover and detailed explanations to obtain weapons and ammunition.
A notebook containing manuscript inscriptions explicitly referred, over 12 pages, to the armed jihad, death in martyrdom while some excerpts openly mentioned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State group leader, the prosecutor said. Two of the Strasbourg suspects traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border via Cyprus in March 2015, he said. The Marseille Moroccan suspect left his home country in 2013 and made multiple trips across Europe with fake ID documents. In 2015, the Turkish authorities prevented him entering Turkey.
Molins was speaking to reporters the day after anti-terrorism authorities took the unusual step of holding the men in custody without charge beyond the normal maximum period, relying on a recent anti-terrorism measure. France remains under a state of emergency imposed after Islamic State attacks in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people.