Growing Terror Threat Prompts France to Tighten Laws

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Paris ( - Calling the risk of a terrorist attack against France very high, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has outlined new anti-terror legislation that will include expanded video surveillance of public areas and police access to phone and Internet records.

Sarkozy, who is also head of President Jacques Chirac's majority UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party and a strong contender for the 2007 presidential elections, unveiled the measures in the wake of a dawn police sweep outside Paris which rounded up nine Islamic militants suspected of plotting attacks.

Speaking on the France 3 television network, Sarkozy said France needed to revamp its anti-terror laws because "the terrorist threat exists. It is at a very high level."

Asked to rate the threat on a scale of one to five, Sarkozy said it was closer to four than to three.

The arrested suspects, who can be detained for four days without formal charges, are linked to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a splinter group which originated from the violent Algerian Islamist movement and now has ties to al Qaeda.

One is Safe Bourada, an Algerian who served five years in prison for a 1995 bomb attack in Paris which killed 10 people. Police said they were able to identify other suspects because Bourada had been kept under surveillance since he was freed from jail.

According to police reports, the suspects were considering attacks on the Paris metro system and an airport but had not reached the point of selecting a final target.

The proposed anti-terrorism bill, which will be presented to the cabinet in October and then to parliament for debate, provides for the installation of surveillance cameras around businesses such as large department stores and places of worship like synagogues.

Sarkozy said he had studied the successes of British police in identifying, with the help of surveillance tapes, the terrorists responsible for the bombings in London last July.

The law will also require Internet cafe owners and telephone operators to keep connection records for one year. The minister said this would also help investigators track down terrorists who were plotting attacks.

"I think these measures effectively go in the right direction," said Marc Hecker, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.

"There will always be people, defenders of civil liberties, who will say that these measures go against the right to privacy," Hecker said. "But I think these are necessary measures. When one fights against terrorism, one must sometimes agree to compromise on civil rights."

The new legislation will give investigators better access to travel agency records, personal passenger details and passport and visa applications.

Travel behavior could provide early warnings that something was being planned.

"It is not normal that an individual from our neighborhoods should leave all of a sudden for four months in Afghanistan [or] three months in Syria," Sarkozy said.

Authorities are aware of ten French nationals currently in Iraq as volunteer suicide bombers. Six have already died in suicide bombings.

Sarkozy repeated previous warnings that Muslim preachers who advocated violence and terrorism would be expelled and added that they could see their French citizenship revoked if they were naturalized. There have already been 34 expulsions in such cases.

The French have been shaken by the deadly bombings in Madrid and London.

"It would be completely na?ve to think that France will be spared by Islamic terrorism," said Hecker.

"We saw that terrorism can strike in Europe. It struck in Madrid and it struck in London. And to think that France would be immune because of its political position on the Iraqi war would be a real error," Hecker added.

See Earlier Story:
Report Warns of Terrorists' 'Great Ramadan Offensive' (Sept. 8, 2005)

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