French authorities say they have dismantled a female terrorist cell directed by the Islamic State group from Syria that was planning an attack in France.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the terror cell was made up of three women, ages 39, 23 and 19. Police arrested them Thursday night in Boussy-Saint-Antoine, about 30 kilometers from Paris; several other people were detained, some of whom were men.
One of the women arrested had been the driver of a car loaded with tanks of gas, which was discovered last weekend parked outside Notre Dame Cathedral.
Molins told reporters that investigators found traces of diesel fuel on a blanket and a cigarette in the trunk. Had even one of the gas tanks caught fire, he said, the car would have been consumed by an explosion.
A top French intelligence official earlier predicted future terrorist attacks would be carried out through car bombings and other explosives, in contrast to the attacks last November in the French capital, carried out by gunmen wearing suicide belts.
French officials have been quoted in media reports as saying the three women now under arrest planned to attack the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris and another suburban station.
Molins said one of the women, identified only as Sara H., had been separately engaged to two French extremists involved in recent attacks on police and a priest.
The prosecutor said Sara H. and another woman, Ines M., attacked police before they were arrested, stabbing one in the shoulder with a kitchen knife.
Police shot and wounded Ines M., who was the driver of the abandoned car. They found a document in her purse pledging allegiance to IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and proclaiming an attack on French soil.
Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who has worked with hundreds of radicalized French youngsters and their parents, said she was not surprised that women had been among those arrested in a terrorism investigation.
Bouzar said the Islamic State group lures men and women to radicalism for different reasons, but the recruitment and radicalization process is the same. Female fighters also want to die and kill, just as much as the male fighters, she said.
Men figured almost exclusively in the recent terrorist attacks in France, but, criminologist Alain Bauer said the use of female fighters and suicide bombers was not new.
“It’s 30 years old from Palestinians, it’s been extremely frequent with the [Tamil] Tigers. … Boko Haram has been doing that almost every day, and not just women but with little girls, from 13, 14, 15 years old, that blow themselves [up] in the market,” he said.
In France, two women figured in the January and November 2015 terrorist attacks, although it's unclear whether they played any direct role.
Anthropologist Bouzar said one direct fallout of the most recent case would be felt by Muslim women in France. There will be more searches and more suspicion, at a time when the Muslim headscarf and burkini have already generated sharp controversy. That may increase a sense of victimization among a tiny minority -- which, she said, can be a first step to radicalization.