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Isis commanders in Syria or Iraq directed foiled plot to launch pre-Christmas attacks on Paris landmarks

President says 'large-scale attack' planned for 1 December stopped

Lizzie Dearden
Friday 25 November 2016 18:25 GMT
The Champs Elysees Christmas markets were among targets scouted out by terror cell
The Champs Elysees Christmas markets were among targets scouted out by terror cell (Getty)

Isis commanders in the group’s “caliphate” directed a plot to launch fresh terror attacks on possible targets including Disneyland Paris and the French capital’s famous Christmas markets, prosecutors have said.

Seven suspected members of the cell were arrested last weekend in a series of raids in Strasbourg and Marseille, with two of those detained subsequently released.

The remaining five – four Frenchmen and a Moroccan man – appeared before anti-terrorism judges on Friday.

The targets and the date of the planned assault were taken from information found on a smartphone, police sources said (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Francois Molins, the Paris public prosecutor, said items seized in Strasbourg included written documents showing “clear allegiance” to Isis and “glorifying death and martyrdom”.

“The Strasbourg commando unit, but also the individual arrested in Marseille, were in possession of common instructions...sent by a coordinator from the Iraqi-Syrian region via encrypted applications,” he added.

Investigators established that the cell was planning an attack on 1 December on one of a number of possible targets, although Mr Molins admitted authorities have so far been “unable to determine the exact one”.

The prosecutor said the terror suspects were in possession of weapons and financing, having been arrested ahead of an arms trade following an eight-month surveillance operation.

The plot’s coordinator had also been in contact with two other people who were arrested on June over a separate attack allegedly planned during the Euro 2016 football tournament.

Police sources said a dozen potential targets had been scouted out including the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees, Disneyland Paris, cafe terraces in Paris, the capital’s police headquarters and a Metro station.

Authorities in Portugal had been aware of the Moroccan suspect, 46, who was arrested in Marseille, because of his possible radicalisation while living in the country.

The four other suspects, aged between 35 and 37, were previously unknown to French intelligence services, although two of them are suspected of having travelled to fight for Isis in Syria during 2015.

“The breakup of this network has protected us against a large-scale attack,” said Francois Hollande.

Speaking on Friday, the French President said the fight against terrorism will be “long and difficult but one thing is certain, we will win because France, when it stays together, is capable of overcoming all challenges”.

The country remains under a continuing state of emergency, with exceptional security powers extended several times since Isis’ Paris attacks on 13 November 2015.

More than 200 people have been killed in Islamist atrocities in France that started with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and include the Nice lorry attack on Bastille Day and murder of a police officer and Catholic priest.

Police at a retirement home for Catholic missionaries in Montferrier-sur-Lez in France, following an attack on 24 November (EPA)

The French government says at least 17 other attacks have been foiled since the start of the year in France, and seven more in 2015.

Investigators said there was no immediate evidence an attack on a retirement home for Catholic missionaries on Thursday night was linked to Islamist terrorism.

A 47-year-old former soldier was arrested almost a day after the assault on the Green Oaks home for elderly former nuns and priests who worked in Africa.

More than 130 police officers were involved in a manhunt for the suspect, who was described as “very dangerous” by Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, chief of the gendarmerie in Montferrier-sur-Lez, north of Montpellier.

Initial statements from police said the man was armed with a “sawn-off shotgun” and knife but an air gun has since been recovered in a car belonging to the suspect.

He is alleged to have killed a 54-year-old employee of the retirement home, where she worked as a laundress. Her body was found bound and gagged outside the building with knife wounds.

Additional reporting by agencies

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