French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says the threat of terrorism in France has never been so high, saying police have thwarted five potential attacks since 2013 — including the arrest of an Islamic extremist this week who is believed to have planned attacks on one or more churches.
Prime Minister Valls told a French radio broadcaster Thursday that hundreds of French nationals are currently in Syria, where they could be radicalized.
The French news agency, AFP, reports that the French citizens he referred to are part of a group of more than a thousand French nationals who are associated with so-called "terror networks."
Valls originally said in the interview with France Inter that France had foiled five attacks since January, when Islamic militants opened fire on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and began a three-day shooting spree that left 20 people dead. Some of the victims were killed at a Jewish grocery store.
The prime minister's office later corrected his statement to say he meant France has prevented five attacks since 2013.
Valls was speaking a day after authorities said they had arrested a 24-year-old Algerian national in Paris suspected of the murder of a woman at the weekend and an aborted plan to launch an armed attack on at least one church.
Authorities say the 24-year-old Algerian arrested in Paris on Sunday was targeting one or more churches and was linked to the shooting death of a young woman.
The Islamic extremist was prevented from opening fire on churchgoers only because he accidentally shot himself in the leg, French officials said Wednesday.
The computer science student had been flagged as a security risk this year and in 2014. He was also suspected in the death of a young woman whose body was found on Sunday shortly before his arrest.
Even though the student had been flagged there had been no specific reason to open a judicial investigation, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Wednesday.
Suspect had lived in France
Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said the suspect had lived in France for several years.
He was waiting outside his apartment building for first aid when police arrived. They followed a trail of blood to his car, which contained loaded guns, and notes about potential targets.
A search of his apartment in southeastern Paris turned up more weapons including three Kalashnikov assault rifles along with phones and computers that police used to establish that he'd been in communication with someone "who could have been in Syria," Molins said at a news conference.
This person "explicitly asked him to target a church," Molins said, declining to answer questions about the investigation into what he termed "an imminent attack."
Police also found Arabic-language material that mentioned al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in the man's apartment, Molins said.
The thwarted attack was announced hours before Cazeneuve met with executives from top Internet companies, including Google and Twitter, to talk about the government's plan to increase online surveillance and block jihadi propaganda.
Material for this report came from Reuters and AP.