France foils ISIS terror attack by female cell: Prosecutor

French public prosecutor Francois Molins at a press conference on Sept 9, 2016, two days after several gas cylinders were found in a car near Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral.
French public prosecutor Francois Molins at a press conference on Sept 9, 2016, two days after several gas cylinders were found in a car near Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French authorities have foiled an attack by three heavily radicalised women who were being guided by the Islamic State militant group from Syria, France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said on Friday (Sept 9).

“A terrorist cell made up of young women totally receptive to the deadly ideology of Daesh has been dismantled,” Francois Molins said in a press conference, using the Arabic name for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The three women, led by 19-year-old Ines Madani, were arrested south of Paris on Thursday.

They were “determined” to launch an attack, Molins said.

A car laden with gas cylinders found abandoned near Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Sunday belonged to Madani’s father and the keys were found in her possession.

Clear links also emerged on Friday between the women arrested and jihadist attacks in France this summer.

Investigators have learned that one of the women arrested was the fiancee of Larossi Abballa, who killed a senior police officer and his partner at their home in a Paris suburb in June before himself being shot dead, Molins said.

The woman, identified only as Sarah H, then became engaged to Adel Kermiche, one of two militants who slit the throat of an elderly priest in July near the northern city of Rouen, the prosecutor said.

The developments came after the owner of the abandoned car was identified by the insurance badge that remained on the car’s windscreen even though the number plates had been removed.

Investigators tracked down Madani and her two accomplices who were hiding out in an apartment in the Paris suburb of Boussy-Saint-Antoine on Thursday.

Madani was already known to intelligence services after trying several times to travel to Syria, the prosecutor said.

She had sworn allegiance to ISIS in a letter found in her handbag.

On Thursday, the woman identified as Sarah H, 23, stabbed a policeman in the shoulder who had been keeping watch on them from an unmarked car near the apartment, the investigator said.

Teams of police then swooped on the women and in the struggle, Madani was shot in the thigh and the ankle.

The 15-year-old daughter of 39-year-old Amel S, the third alleged member of the cell, has also been arrested and three other people are in custody.

The prosecutor said there was evidence that attempts had been made to light the gas cylinders found in the car near Notre Dame in the heart of Paris’ tourist district.

“A half-smoked cigarette” and a piece of material soaked in flammable liquid found in the boot of the car had been used to try to light one of the gas cylinders.

Molins said if the fire had taken hold, “it would have led within minutes to the explosion of at least one of the cylinders which would have led to the destruction of the whole vehicle”.

The women’s other targets remained unclear.

A police source told AFP that security services had issued a warning Thursday about a possible attack on train stations in Paris and the area where the women lived, but Molins did not confirm this.

France is on high alert after ISIS called on its followers to attack the country in revenge for air strikes on the group’s bases in Syria and Iraq.

Molins said the foiled plot showed that while the group once confined women to domestic tasks, it now saw them as “fighters”.

“The terrorist organisation uses not only women, but young women, who get to know them and develop their plot from a distance,” he said.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said earlier the three women “were apparently preparing new, violent and, what is more, imminent actions” when they were arrested.

President Francois Hollande, speaking on a visit to Athens, said: “A group has been destroyed” but warned: “There are others.”

ISIS has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks, including last November’s coordinated bloodshed in Paris in which gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people.

Cazeneuve, the interior minister, on Friday told La Presse daily that 260 people have been arrested in connection with terrorist networks or operations since the beginning of the year.

The arrests followed a deadly summer in France in which 86 people were killed when a truck ploughed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice. ISIS said the truck was driven by one of its followers.

That was followed two weeks later by the gruesome murder of the priest near Rouen.