Country Report on Terrorism 2009 - Chapter 2 - France

In 2009, France found itself grappling with an Islamist threat that reflected the nation’s changing demographics. Several public announcements by al-Qa’ida (AQ) and other groups reiterated that French interests remained key targets of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In response to President Sarkozy’s June comments calling for the banning of the burka in France, AQIM spelled out their intentions to attack France stating, “We will do everything in our power to avenge our sisters’ and our daughters’ honor, by striking France and its interests, wherever they may be.”

Traditionally, local Corsican separatists, Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) members, and ultra-left anarchist factions have been responsible for the majority of attacks and arrests classified as terrorism in France. The number and violence of ETA and Corsican attacks in France have continued their downward trend, however. In 2009, the French intelligence services recognized an elevated threat from an “international European network of radical Islamists with a strong presence in France.” In response to that threat, the French Ministry of interior created the National Police Intervention Force (FIPN) on December 1. The FIPN brings together the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) elements of multiple French Police units to form a 500-man SWAT team. France remained on high alert and recognized that it is a target of AQIM and of other extremist groups in France and abroad.

France and Spain’s concerted efforts against ETA operatives and leadership highlighted the benefits of close regional cooperation and demonstrated the effectiveness of the French counterterrorism program:

  • On January 5, court proceedings began in Paris for the April 2002 suicide bombing of a Djerba Synagogue. The attack killed 14 German and two French nationals. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a co-defendant, accused of being responsible for all AQ external operations during that time frame.
  • In April, French President Sarkozy announced that France and Spain would set up a joint security committee to fight terrorism and drug trafficking. The group, which is an expansion of existing police cooperation targeted at ETA, created a joint general staff headquarters on security to lead the fight against terrorism.
  • On August 19, shortly after the creation of the joint staff, French police arrested three top members of the military arm of ETA: Alberto Machain, Aitzol Etxaburu, and Andono Sarasola. Additionally, police found weapons and bombmaking materials.
  • On October 11, French police in Montpellier arrested the deputy commander of ETA’s military wing, Lurgi Mendinueta and another senior ETA member, Jones Larretxea.
  • On October 19, French police arrested ETA’s political chief, Aitor Lizan Aguilar, as well as ten other ETA members.

Although no terrorist attacks took place on French soil during 2009, French interests were targeted and attacked abroad:

  • On July 14, two French security service personnel, reportedly in Somalia to train government forces in counterterrorism operations, were kidnapped and held by two separate groups–Hezb al-Islam and al-Shabaab. On August 26, the hostage held by Hezb al-Islam was freed, although the circumstances of his release or escape remained unclear. Initial reports suggested he killed his kidnappers and escaped. Later reports intimated that a ransom had been paid to Hezb al-Islam and the hostage was freed.
  • On August 18, AQIM claimed responsibility for the August 8 suicide bombing at the French Embassy in Mauritania that injured three people.
  • On October 9, a suspected AQ operative was arrested with his brother in Paris. The operative had been working on projects for a nuclear-research facility near Geneva. French intelligence investigators said the physicist, a man of Algerian origin, was working on analysis projects at a “very high level” related to the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. Officials said the suspect had been in contact with people linked to AQIM about potential targets for terrorism in France, and he had expressed a desire to carry out such attacks but had “not committed material preparatory acts.” The interior minister determined that the brothers were enough of a threat to be arrested, ending the French government’s 18-month-long surveillance of them.
  • On November 26, a French citizen was kidnapped in Northern Mali. On December 8, AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.[2]
French authorities detained and prosecuted a number of people with ties to various terrorist organizations, including Islamist terrorists (18 convictions), Corsican Nationalists (19 convictions), Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) members (28 convictions), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) (22 convictions), and Kurds with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (16 convictions). It should be noted that the number of arrests of ultra-left anarchists dropped from 17 in 2008 to zero in 2009. Additionally, the number of Corsican Nationalists convicted dropped from 46 in 2008 to 19 in 2009. The number of LTTE members arrested, however, jumped from two in 2008 to 22 in 2009, which may be linked to the military crackdown in Sri Lanka during this same period.

The French government undertook several counterterrorism operations with other countries, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In addition to undertaking operations to arrest and prosecute terrorists, France continued programs to address radicalization and extremism through the use of social and economic incentives. Of particular note, the French government went to great efforts to train police personnel to be aware of the signs of radicalization. The French government is very concerned about Islamist radicalization in the French prison system. In 2008, the governments of France, Austria, and Germany jointly commissioned a study to identify key indicators of radicalization in the prison system and offered suggestions on how to prevent or minimize radicalization within the penal system. In 2009, the document was provided to all 27 members of the European Union and was requested by, and provided to nine non-EU states. Within the EU, France hosted a conference on November 13 to help other EU-countries understand the benefits of a counterterrorism coordination center.

Preliminary detention for suspected terrorists in France is six days. The state may thereafter place suspects under pre-trial detention for up to four years when the evidence is compelling or when the suspect is considered to present an imminent threat. In conjunction with local government, the national government continued to increase video surveillance in major cities. French law allows for seizing of assets, video and telephone surveillance, monitoring of public transport records, and provides other broad powers for official access to connection data held by internet cafes and to various personal data. Notably, French nationality may be revoked, leading to expulsion from French territory, if the person in question was naturalized in the preceding 15 years.

France is actively engaged with the UN Security Council Counterterrorism Committee, the G8’s Counterterrorism Action Group, the UNSCR 1267 Committee and the European Council’s Antiterrorism Strategy action plan. France is an original member of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and continued to participate actively. France remained a member of, and contributor to, both the Proliferation and Container Security Initiatives. France continued to upgrade passports to the biometric standard. On May 15 and December 1, in support of U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay facility, France accepted two former detainees and resettled them in France.

On the military front, France currently has more than 3,000 troops participating in operations in Afghanistan. The French commitment included ground troops and air assets.