Mehdi Nemmouche, the man who allegedly shot up the Brussels Jewish Museum earlier this year, killing four, reportedly plotted a large attack during Paris’s Bastille Day celebrations.
Based on the testimony of four French reporters who were kidnapped by the Islamic State and held captive by Nemmouche, French daily Liberation reported Monday that the returned IS fighter planned “at least one attack in France, in the heart of Paris, which would be at least five times bigger than the attacks in Toulouse.” The attack would allegedly have taken place on Paris’s iconic Champs Elysees boulevard on July 14, the French national holiday marking the beginning of the revolution.
The March 2012 Toulouse attacks targeting Jews and soldiers in the southern French city left seven dead and five injured, and the suspected perpetrator, Mohammed Merah, killed himself after a 30-hour siege.
Nemmouche, who was extradited to Belgium over the May 24, 2014, Brussels shooting, which killed four people, was identified this weekend by a French journalist as being among his Islamic extremist captors in Syria.
Revelations that the suspected gunman in the deadly shooting at the Jewish Museum had also served as a captor and torturer in Syria shows Europe’s vulnerability to terror attacks, experts said.
Writing on the website of his former employer Le Point magazine, Nicolas Henin said the 29-year-old was his feared and violent jailer between July and December 2013.
The claim immediately set off alarm bells in Europe.
“This is the first successful terrorist act on European soil linked to Syrian networks,” said terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard.
Hundreds of others like Nemmouche, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, have returned to Europe as battle-hardened veterans with a capacity to sow terror and create havoc.
“It’s a mass phenomenon which is increasingly growing,” said Louis Caprioli, who headed the anti-terror wing of France’s domestic intelligence agency between 1998 and 2004.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said at least 500 people from Britain have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad of whom about 250 have returned.
In France, about 950 people are thought to fight or have fought in Syria, have returned or are in the process of going there.
Brisard, who puts the number of Europeans who have fought in Iraq and Syria or are still fighting there at about 3,200, says Europe is ripe for fresh terror attacks.
“The secret services know it is just a question of time,” he said, a view echoed by US terrorism expert Matthew Olsen, who says the threat for Europe is “relatively immediate.”
French journalist Henin, one of a group of four journalist hostages freed in April, said Nemmouche was a dreaded figure.
“When Nemmouche was not singing, he was torturing,” wrote Henin in an article published on Saturday. “He was part of a small group of Frenchmen whose visits would terrify the 50-odd Syrian prisoners held in the cells nearby. Every night the blows would start raining down in the room, where I was also interrogated. The torture lasted all night, until dawn prayers.”
Nemmouche is slated to appear on September 12 before a Brussels judge who will decide whether to extend his preventive detention.
The attack in broad daylight left an Israeli couple, a Frenchwoman and a Belgian man dead, and raised fears of more terror attacks.
Nemmouche was arrested in the southern French city of Marseille days afterwards.
He has been sentenced seven times in France, including for armed robbery, and has spent seven years in jail, where he was found proselytizing Islam.