France increases terror security, protects moderate mosque leader amid reports of new threat

By Elaine Ganley, AP
Monday, September 20, 2010

France raises terror security, new threat reported

PARIS — France is on alert for possible terrorism after intelligence suggested that attackers might target a public gathering place, with one lead pointing to a female suicide bomber, a counterterrorism official said Monday.

The official told The Associated Press that authorities had been bracing for a possible attack last Thursday. Nothing unusual happened that day in France, but authorities are not letting their guard down, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of office policy.

The scare came as five French workers and two African colleagues were kidnapped in Niger, part of the African turf of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. On Sept. 14, there was a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower.

Last week, the Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by al-Qaida’s Maghreb group.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Monday that “the terrorist threat is real, and today our vigilance, therefore, is reinforced.” Speaking during a visit to the Seine-et-Marne region east of Paris, he did not elaborate on the additional security measures taken.

Despite the warnings, Hortefeux said France has not raised its terror alert level to scarlet, the highest ranking. It remains at red, the second-highest on the four-level scale.

Armed guards have been assigned to the rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris, the prominent moderate Dalil Boubakeur, since Friday, because of a new threat, according to the mosque spokesman.

The three guards are with him “morning, noon and evening,” spokesman Slimane Nadour said Monday by telephone, adding: “We have no information on the nature of the threat.”

Similar armed protection was given to Boubakeur, who is of Algerian origin, in 1997 when death threats were issued, Nadour said. Those threats came in the form of fatwas, or Islamic judicial opinions, when Algeria was engulfed in a brutal Islamist insurgency that continues sporadically today.

It was not immediately clear whether other figures in France were recently given special protection.

The counterterrorism official reached by the AP confirmed a report on RTL radio that said authorities had received information about a possible suicide bombing by a woman. The official declined to give other details.

RTL radio said the alert came from French and North African sources. It said the information was deemed so credible that Hortefeux canceled a two-day visit outside Paris, and security agents searched the city’s transport system throughout the day but came up empty-handed.

That same day, however, Hortefeux held a news conference under the Eiffel Tower to announce that France faced an elevated risk of terrorism.

“An array of clues dating from the last few days and even the last few hours show the terrorist threat is at an elevated level,” Hortefeux said at the time. “It is a real threat.”

An official with the RATP, Paris’ public transit system, said there were “no specific threats” against the French capital’s bus and rail network and added “we are not doing any more, or any less than usual” in terms of security. The official declined to provide his name in accordance with RATP policy. The national railway operator SNCF had no comment on the matter.

The Interior Ministry would not comment Monday on the radio report.

French authorities were alerted to threats by Islamist radicals in notes last week by intelligence agents that evoke an “anti-French focus” by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the daily Le Monde reported on Monday.

Le Monde quoted one note as saying the threats against France have intensified in recent weeks. It said the notes were written days before the kidnapping last Thursday of seven people working at a huge uranium mine in Niger run by France’s state-owned nuclear power giant Areva.

French authorities suspect the kidnappings were the work of al-Qaida’s North African branch.


Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.

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