Paris 'thwarts plot to behead military member'

French Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve speaks during a session of Questions to the government, on July 15, 2015.
French Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve speaks during a session of Questions to the government, on July 15, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • France has foiled a "terrorist" plot to capture and decapitate a member of its armed forces, officials said, underscoring the threat the country faces six months after the Islamist attacks in Paris.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said security forces had staged dawn raids on Monday to take into custody four people, aged between 16 and 23, who were "planning to commit a terrorist act against French military installations".

A source close to the investigation into the thwarted attack, who asked to remain anonymous, said the four arrested had been planning to film the decapitation of a member of the military based in southern France.

The oldest of the group served as a navy signalman at the base around the southern town of Collioure, which is also used for training by elite commando forces.

France remains on high alert more than six months after attacks in January that claimed 17 lives and started with shootings at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The other key plotter was just 17 years old, and was already being closely watched by the authorities due to his activities on social media and connections to French militants in prison.

The youngest suspect was later freed, a judicial source told Agence France-Presse.

All three of those still under arrest had been planning to travel to militant-controlled areas of Syria, the security source said, but the 17-year-old's mother contacted the authorities and he was interviewed by counter-terrorism officials.

No weapons were found during the arrests, the source said, although officials discovered documents on preparing explosives.

The news of the arrests followed a statement from President Francois Hollande, who said on a visit to the southern city of Marseille that attacks had been thwarted in recent days.

France remains on high alert more than six months after attacks in January that claimed 17 lives and started with shootings at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

At July 14 celebrations commemorating Bastille Day, Mr Hollande said: "Every week, we are arresting, preventing... terrorist acts."

The suspected plotters are now in the custody of France's intelligence services, the DGSI, and anti-terrorist prosecutors in Paris have opened a probe, Mr Cazeneuve said. "I want to congratulate our security services for this new blow to the terrorists and for again foiling an attack," he said.

There are 1,850 French citizens or people living in France who are "implicated" in Islamist militant networks, with around 500 in Syria or Iraq, the authorities said.

France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, has beefed up security, posting 30,000 police officers and soldiers outside 500 sites deemed "sensitive", such as schools and places of worship.

The authorities have also set up a hotline for friends or family concerned that someone could be tempted to wage jihad - an effort that has yielded 2,500 leads.

Following controversial anti-terror laws passed last year, France is also preventing suspected Islamist militants from leaving the country - some 118 travel bans have been enforced since the legislation came into force.

Mr Cazeneuve said a further 40 "preachers of hate, including pseudo, self-proclaimed imams" had been kicked out of France.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2015, with the headline 'Paris 'thwarts plot to behead military member''. Print Edition | Subscribe