While investigators in France continue to hold suspected terrorist Mehdi Nemmouche, arrested in Marseille on Friday in connection with the shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 24, four more people were arrested by French police on Monday in a sweep against jihadist recruiters, according to an Associated Press report.
The four are not suspected of being connected with the Brussels shootings, which left three dead and a fourth seriously injured, according to a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor.
However, the four may be connected to the arrest on Tuesday of a 23-year old man in the Schaerbeek, a district of Brussels with a large Turkish and Moroccan immigrant population, who is suspected of being part of a Syrian jihadist network which French authorities have been investigating since July, according to a report in La Libre newspaper.
France, a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has targeted violent cells and self-radicalised operators planning attacks in the country since a Toulouse-based al Qaeda-inspired gunman shot dead seven people in 2012, according to Reuters.
Fearing hundreds of Europeans could return home to carry out attacks after being trained in Syria, European Union member states are aiming to coordinate efforts to prevent Muslims becoming radicalised.
According to French authorities, Nemmouche, the suspected Jewish Museum shooter, travelled to Syria on Dec 31, 2012.
Until then, he was a small time criminal with a history of convictions for thefts and robbery, but during his last stint in prison, between 2007 and 2012, he became radicalised, according to Paris prosecutor François Molins.
He left for Syria three weeks after his release from prison, and is believed to have stayed there for more than a year, fighting with jihadists. He returned to Europe in March this year, but the authorities lost track of him after he landed in Germany.
According to the Local, Nemmouche was born in Roubaix one of the poorest towns in northern France. He never knew his father, was abandoned by his mother, shunted from one foster home to another and slowly evolved from a petty criminal to a jihadist. Yet his aunt said: “He is nice, intelligent, educated and has done a year at university.”
His profile is similar to that of another French-born jihadist, Mohamed Merah who killed seven people in Toulouse in 2012: three paratroopers as well as three children and a teacher at a Jewish school.
A BBC report says: “Both men had complicated family backgrounds; both were petty criminals and investigators believe they turned to Salafism in prison. Merah’s radicalisation increased after journeys to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mehdi Nemmouche had spent over a year in Syria, and prosecutors say he was carrying the banner of the most extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) when he returned.”
“”There are dozens of men like Merah and Nemmouche,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Tuesday. ‘We’ve never faced a challenge on this scale.'”
The arrest of Nemmouche followed a routine check by Marseille customs officials of luggage on board a bus from Amsterdam and Brussels.
Since the Netherlands, Belgium and France are in the Schengen Area, an EU free travel area where there are no customs barriers or passport checks for passengers, it is likely the customs officials were making a random check for drugs. What they found were a Kalashnikov, a handgun, ammunition and a video claiming responsibility for the attack at the Jewish Museum.
He will be kept in detention pending extradition to Belgium.