French police arrested two men, aged 35 and 39, yesterday in connection with a foiled terrorist plot to attack a church near Paris in April. The two suspects were arrested in dawn raids on their homes in the western suburbs of the French capital, just five months after the jihadist killing spree at the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket in the city that left 17 dead.
Authorities say the two new suspects are believed to have conspired with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24 year-old Algerian IT student, to attack a church in Villejuif, south of Paris. Police sources previously said that a series of online exchanges discovered after Ghlam’s arrest show he appeared to be “remote-controlled from afar by one or more mysterious men”, likely in Syria. The messages indicate he was being coached to carry out the church attack.
The Guardian reported last month that three other suspects were also arrested after links to Ghlam were uncovered.
Ghlam, who first came to France from Algeria with his mother in 2001, is the main suspect in the murder of Aurélie Châtelain last month. The 32-year-old fitness instructor and mother of a 5-year-old daughter was found dead in the boot of a car in Villejuif.
At first it was thought the killing was a random incident but Ghlam was linked to the murder when he was arrested having sought medical assistance for accidentally shooting himself in the thigh. It is now thought Ghlam intended to steal Châtelain’s car for use in the attack.
Following a search of his home and car, police discovered several AK-47s, handguns, cell phones, police armbands and bulletproof vests as well as documents in Arabic mentioning al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The New York Times reported intelligence services first investigating Ghlam in early 2014 after he had written on Facebook of his desire to go to Syria. Nothing was thought suspicious on that occasion, nor after the second round of checks carried out after he returned to France from a trip to Turkey this year.
The New York Times also quoted Éric Denécé, director of the French Centre For Research On Intelligence, saying:
“There were no flaws in intelligence gathering, because you cannot keep every single person under surveillance all the time — we don’t have the means to do so…This attack was thwarted by accident, but intelligence gathering is not an exact science, and chance plays a role.”
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who last month ordered authorities to ramp up security around churches, said the exact role in Ghlam’s plot of those most recently arrested remains to be determined.