French terror suspects ‘agile at plotting attacks’

/ Source: The Associated Press

Islamic terrorists operating in France are more agile at plotting attacks, better educated and more ideologically grounded than a decade ago — and their numbers are growing despite advances in methods to track radicals, according to former and current intelligence officials.

French security services have thwarted several attacks and rounded up hundreds of suspects since deadly bombings in the mid-1990s by Algerian extremists that jolted the nation. While the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks heightened global awareness of the threat, France was already on alert — and has not suffered a major attack in a decade.

In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, French intelligence officials described changes in how terror cells finance and plan attacks, and how they recruit and train. Terrorist funding is coming from ingenious and often small-scale sources: money laundered through halal butcher shops, cannabis dealing, ATM scams.

'The level of recruitment is rising'
And most believe that the number of terror operatives in France, though impossible to pin down, is mounting.

"The spider web (of terror) put in place since the 1990s hasn't stopped growing," said Louis Caprioli, former assistant director of the DST, the country's main counterintelligence agency.

"The level of recruitment is rising, with more and more engineers or technicians," or chemists or physicists, he said, describing them as "a model of the terrorist of the future."

A leading anti-terrorism prosecutor described the attackers of 1995 as down-and-out youth from impoverished French suburbs — the squalid housing complexes ringing urban centers that were the scene of rioting last fall.

Today's Islamic terrorists, however, are more of the "university profile," said the prosecutor, who spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cases he treats.

He said prison authorities are fighting what is so far a losing battle against terrorist recruitment behind bars.

Linked by ideology
French investigators do not talk of al-Qaida, insisting that there is no such convenient, single enemy. Instead they see several small unconnected terror cells around the world that share a common ideology inspired by Osama bin Laden.

Dynamic, cross-border intelligence cooperation is crucial. Coordination between European and North African secret services, for example, helped avert a dozen attacks in France since 1996, Caprioli said.

In mid-May, trial hearings wrapped up in one such case, in which French officials thwarted a planned chemical attack by Chechen-trained militants. Investigators couldn't define the target but documents show it could have been the Russian Embassy, a police station or even the Eiffel Tower.

For many Islamic terrorists, the target of an attack is secondary, said Jean-Francois Ricard, a former top anti-terrorism judge and now a Defense Ministry official.

"The objective is fixed at the last moment," he said. "That's why it is often difficult to say what was the real 'target' of a group at the moment of arrest. Even if the attack is close."

That — and the increasing speed with which terrorists plot attacks — make it hard to determine when police should make a move.

"A few years ago, members of a group pursued an important ideological preparation. Today the ideology is integrated. The groundwork has already been laid. This leaves much less time for investigators to intervene," said Stephane Berthomet, an officer with the National Anti-Terrorist Division until 2004, author of a book about Islamic terrorism, and now a security consultant.

Tracking terrorist financing is important but not a "miracle solution," the anti-terrorism prosecutor said.

Low-budget but resourceful operations
The French agency Tracfin, part of the Finance Ministry, alerts authorities to movements of large sums. But most terrorists operate at least partially underground, using car theft, traffic in counterfeit goods or fake papers — or work out of front companies such as Muslim butcher shops, he said.

In the case of the Chechen network tried from March to May, explosives experts allegedly mixed chemicals in their mother's empty face cream jars — a sign of how low-budget and resourceful such operations can be.

In one case, France launched a judicial investigation after a cash machine technician was accused of faking a robbery to help fund a Moroccan militant network.

French officials have made several adjustments to their anti-terrorism arsenal. A law passed in December gives authorities new powers to monitor citizens who travel to countries known to have terrorism training grounds, and expands the use of video surveillance and electronic monitoring on French soil. Other changes include an extended detention period from four to six days and a new court for minors accused of terror-related crimes.

Defense lawyers and human rights groups say France's new anti-terrorism measures go too far in eroding civil liberties.

"The fight against terrorism is not an easy thing," said Patrick Baudouin, head of the Paris-based International Human Rights Federation. "One must not cede to the pressure of police who want a maximum free hand. The end doesn't always justify the means."