French police were hunting Thursday for possible accomplices to an Algerian student whose plan to attack churches was foiled when his arsenal of weapons was uncovered purely by chance.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the planned attack on one or more churches in the town of Villejuif just south of Paris was the fifth to be thwarted since 2013.
Sid Ahmed Ghlam, 24, was arrested on Wednesday after police stumbled upon his plans after he called paramedics saying he had accidentally shot himself in the leg.
An arsenal of four Kalashnikov rifles, several handguns and bulletproof vests were discovered in his car and at his student flat as well as jihadist literature mentioning al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Detailed plans to carry out an attack were also found. His detention for questioning was extended for a further 24 hours on Thursday.
Police said they were hunting individuals who may have provided the car in which the weapons were found.
The foiled plot comes less than four months after a jihadist killing spree in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish kosher supermarket left 17 people dead.
“The threat has never been as high. We have never had to face this kind of terrorism in our history,” Valls told France Inter radio.
Police said Ghlam’s DNA was also linked to the murder of a young mother in Villejuif who was found shot dead in the passenger seat of her car on Sunday.
Security sources said the killing may have resulted from an attempt to steal the vehicle. Traces of 32-year-old Aurelie Chatelain’s blood were found on one of Ghlam’s jackets, police said.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Ghlam had told police “far-fetched” tales of how he had received the bullet wound to his leg, such as that he had shot himself while trying to throw his weapons into the Seine river.
Did he act alone?
Ghlam, a fresh-faced IT student with no criminal record, had previously drawn the attention of French intelligence agents over his postings on social networks expressing his desire to join jihadists fighting in Syria in 2014, and a trip to Turkey at the start of this year.
But a probe by intelligence services found there was not enough evidence for round-the-clock surveillance, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
Analysis of his communications equipment indicated Ghlam “was in touch with another person who could be in Syria on how to carry out an attack, with the latter clearly asking him to target a church,” said Molins.
“This type of individual does not act alone,” said Valls.
Several of Ghlam’s friends and family have since been detained. His sister told AFP that her brother was not an extremist. “My brother did not change. He was not radicalized. I am shocked by all that, we do not believe it.”
France has provided more jihadists to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq than any other European country, and is often singled out as a target for extremist attacks.
The government recently proposed controversial new spy laws that are being debated in parliament.
Valls defended the overhaul of intelligence legislation saying it was long overdue and it “was not about tapping the phones of the whole population” and was about giving intelligence services “the means to be as effective as possible.”
He said 1,573 French citizens or residents had been implicated in “terror networks,” 442 of whom were currently believed to be in Syria and 97 of whom had died there.
Officials fear many will return to carry out attacks on French soil.
After the January attacks, security at sensitive sites such as religious buildings and media houses have been “permanently adapted to deal with the threat,” said Cazeneuve.