French authorities warn of high threat of terrorist attack
PARIS — France is facing a “peak’’ terror threat, and authorities suspect Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate of plotting a conventional bomb attack on a crowded target, the national police chief said yesterday.
The warning from Chief Frederic Pechenard was made on the eve of national protests that unions hope will send millions into city streets and was the latest warning in a recent drumbeat from French officials that the public needs to be more alert about terrorism.
“France is today under threat. For that matter, French people need to get used to it,’’ he told Europe-1 radio. “We’re now facing a peak threat that can’t be doubted. There is a specific threat against French interests.
“We have serious indications, coming from reliable intelligence, saying that there’s an important risk of an attack.’’
Pechenard also said Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb “is targeting us in particular.’’
Last week, there was a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower, and investigators are looking into an anonymous phone call that prompted police to evacuate the most-visited monument in the tourism-oriented country.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for last week’s abduction of five French nationals and two Africans in northern Niger. Pechenard said the group is not thought to have the means to launch a nuclear or biological attack in France, but could carry out assassinations or attacks using conventional explosives.
“In order to do the maximum possible damage, [such an attack] would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store, or a gathering,’’ he said.
Last week, the French Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Counterterrorism officials in France say the ban is just one of several factors that have made France a target of the group. Another was France’s logistical support for a July raid by Mauritanian forces against the group that left six of its militants dead. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has its base in an African desert.
Today, hundreds of thousands are expected to take to the streets across France for demonstrations against the government’s pension overhaul. Protests earlier this month brought more than 1 million people out.
Pechenard said he did not believe the protests would be a terrorist target.
But in an underground nerve center at Paris police headquarters, agents were bracing for any possibility, laying out maps of the march route in the capital and going over deployment plans.
Olivier Bagousse, who runs the Paris Police Department’s Command and Information Center, said authorities have stepped up their alert level following recent intelligence that France is under high threat.
“For the last few weeks, we’ve been particularly sensitive. Our staffers have been encouraged anew to be on the lookout,’’ he said in a restricted zone at police headquarters, which sits across the square from Notre Dame Cathedral. “We are very vigilant.’’
The center resembles a small-scale police version of NASA’s Mission Control: Officers plot police positions on a big-screen electronic city map and keep tabs on a wall of TV monitors feeding in video from some of the 400 closed-circuit cameras scattered throughout the city.