Police in France went on an anti-terrorist sweep on Saturday arresting 11 persons and killing the leader of the terror cell when he came out all guns blazing in a bid to resist arrest. The arrests were made in cities as far flung as Strasbourg in the north east to Cannes and Nice on the French Riviera in the south. Several suspects were also rounded up in the Paris region.
The arrests came after a grenade attack on a Jewish grocery store in Sarcelles, in the Paris region on September 19, in which one person was slightly injured. The explosives used were crudely put together, and police were able to identify the fingerprint of Jeremie Sidney, a known petty criminal originally from the French West Indies.
Sidney carried a letter of martyrdom on his person and clearly preferred to die than be caught. “What is new and surprising about these arrests is that all the suspects are Frenchmen who have converted to Islam either in prison or in an attempt to reform through the adoption of a new religious identity. They all have criminal backgrounds and have been recently radicalised. None of them come from well-off families and their educational levels are low, unlike that of those who carried out the 9/11 bombings. This is more akin to the Mohamed Merah profile where the criminal violence of the streets is being channelized into religious and anti-Semitic violence,” Matthieu Guidere, a specialist on radical Islam told The Hindu.
(Mohamed Merah, a young delinquent from Toulouse killed seven people, including a Jewish father and his two daughters before being shot dead by elite Special Forces in a fierce gunfight in March this year).
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters that a “vast anti-terrorist operation was conducted.” Jeremie Sidney who was killed in a gunfight in Strasbourg had spent two years in Jail for drug trafficking. “Jeremie Sidney appeared to be a delinquent converted to radical Islam who belonged to a group suspected, without certainty, to want to enter into jihad,” Mr. Molins said.
French President Francois Hollande on Sunday received French Jewish leaders who have expressed alarm at the rise in anti Semitic attacks. It is a new form of anti-Semitism and is directed at the French Jewish community by Muslims rather than by Christians as in the past. During their searches, police found al-Qaeda literature, €27,000 in cash, munitions and a list of Israeli associations in Paris at the homes of suspects.
Mr. Hollande said he would “protect all French citizens” and that terrorism in any form would not be tolerated. Security is to be increased at Jewish establishments, schools and religious institutions. The French government last week tabled draft legislation that gives police powers to arrest those involved in terrorist activity outside France.
Many young French radicals make their way to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to become operational jihadists. Mohamed Merah had trained in such camps. The French have also warned the Indian government that it could be the target of attacks from French jihadists who have trained in Pakistan. Indeed, Mohamed Merah told police he initially aimed to attack the Indian embassy in Paris but gave up the idea after it appeared logistically too complicated. Merah lived in the south western city of Toulouse.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community and Islamophobia in France has been on the rise. The head of the Muslim Council in France on Sunday appealed for tolerance and said the entire Muslim community “should not be branded terrorist” by these isolated cases. “The majority of France’s Muslims are tolerant and respect the laws of the Republic,” he said.