PARIS, France (AFP) — Five men arrested in France for planning an attack in the Paris area were directed from the Islamic State group’s heartland, a prosecutor said Friday.
Over last weekend police had arrested seven men and seized weapons in raids in the cities of Strasbourg and Marseille.
Two of the suspects were later released but the other five — four Frenchmen and a Moroccan — appeared before anti-terrorism judges on Friday, public prosecutor Francois Molins told a press conference.
“The breakup of this network… has protected us against a large-scale attack,” said President Francois Hollande.
France has been under a state of emergency since January 2015 when Islamist extremists carried out the first of three large-scale attacks in the country that have left 238 people dead.
Molins said items seized in Strasbourg included written documents showing “clear allegiance” to IS and “glorifying death and martyrdom.”
“The Strasbourg commando unit, but also the individual arrested in Marseille, were in possession of common instructions… sent by a coordinator from the Iraqi-Syrian region via encrypted applications,” he said.
Investigators established that the Strasbourg cell was planning an attack on December 1 on one of a number of possible targets, although Molins admitted authorities have so far been “unable to determine the exact one.”
A police source said on Thursday that the cell’s members researched “a dozen sites” online including the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees, the Disneyland Paris theme park, cafe terraces in the northeast of the capital, the Paris police headquarters and a metro station.
‘Looking for targets’
The suspects were “in possession of or in search of weapons and financing” and were “looking for targets,” Molins said.
He said the coordinator had also been in contact with two other people who were arrested on June 14, during the Euro 2016 football tournament in France.
One of those suspects told interrogators that an attack was planned, and mentioned the headquarters of the Paris police and also that of the internal intelligence agency DGSI outside the capital.
Authorities in Portugal had been aware of the Moroccan, aged 46, who was arrested in Marseille, because of his possible radicalization while living in the country.
The four other suspects, aged between 35 and 37, were previously unknown to French intelligence services, although two of them are suspected of having traveled to Syria in 2015.
All five are to be prosecuted for terrorism offenses, said Molins.
The government has said 17 attacks were foiled since the beginning of the year in France, and seven in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Christmas market in Strasbourg, one of the largest and most famous in Europe, opened on Friday under tightened security, with two million people expected over the next four weeks.
France’s state of emergency gives security forces enhanced powers of surveillance and arrest.
In January 2015, Islamist gunmen targeted the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket.
Ten months later, Islamic State jihadists massacred 130 people in attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, France’s national stadium and a handful of bars and restaurants in eastern Paris.
And in July, a self-radicalized extremist plowed a truck into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 86.
Two weeks later, two jihadists in their 20s claiming to be IS followers slit the throat of an 84-year-old priest at a church near the northern city of Rouen.
Hollande said Friday the “fight against terrorism,” will be “long and difficult but one thing is certain, we will win because France, when it stays together, is capable of overcoming all challenges.”