PARIS - European security agencies are on a manhunt for nine militants - six Moroccans, two Syrians and an Iraqi. They are believed to have landed in Italy last month via Greece with plans to mount terror attacks in Europe.
According to French security sources, the group includes fighters who are battle-hardened and have been through Islamic State training camps in Syria rehearsing a variety of types of attacks. The group could pose as significant a threat as the militants behind the coordinated series of mass shootings and bombings in Paris in November 2015 that left 130 dead and another 413 injured, 100 seriously, French officials told VOA.
The manhunt was triggered when Italian security agencies alerted their European counterparts about intelligence indicating the militant group had arrived in Italy from Turkey after waiting several days in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki for forged Italian residency permits and other documents. The Italians fear possible attack targets include airports and the Vatican, which IS propagandists have long threatened to target.
On Tuesday, French authorities announced the man who fatally stabbed two young women in Marseille last Sunday was a Tunisian who had lived south of Rome for several years. The attacker, who was shot dead by French soldiers, had in his possession seven different false IDs.
The Marseille attacker was not part of the group currently the subject of the European manhunt. The militants who landed last month are believed to have had assistance from an immigrant who is a legal resident in the Sicilian town of Belpasso, near Catania.
Citing state security, Italy has since 2015 expelled more than 200 people suspected of radicalizing others or recruiting would-be jihadis, 77 of them this year.
Last month, French security agencies issued a confidential assessment based on an analysis of IS propaganda warning of possible jihadist plans to derail trains.
The security agencies warned all French police forces to pay close attention to any reports of chemicals being stolen from the laboratories of schools and universities - the fear being the material could be used to manufacture homemade explosives.
“The threat of a large organized attack remains very high,” a senior French security official told VOA. “And that is on top of the lone wolf assaults we are experiencing,” he added.
In the past three months, France has witnessed a series of smaller attacks by individuals, either directed or inspired by the Islamic State terror group.
On Tuesday, the lower house of the French parliament approved security legislation that would make permanent some of the emergency measures put in place after the 2015 terrorist attacks, if, as seems likely, it is endorsed in the coming days by the legislature’s upper chamber.
The security legislation codifies the authorities' ability to mount search-and-seizure raids and impose house arrest orders without judicial review. It is expected to take effect when the emergency law is scheduled to end, November 1.
Interior Minister Gérard Collomb justified the legislation Tuesday as “a lasting response to a lasting threat.” Using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, he added, “We are still in a state of war, even if Daesh has suffered some military defeats.”
French officials acknowledge the legislation approved by the lower house Tuesday constitutes a trade-off between security and civil liberties, but they say they have no alternative, considering the threats they face from IS recruits returning from Syria and Iraq, militants radicalized in France and extremists infiltrated into Europe.
Civil libertarians argue the legislation amounts to an overreach, lacks sufficient judicial oversight and allows the security services to act on very thin intelligence. They fear it will worsen relations with French Muslims, who risk becoming the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.
Among the measures the new legislation codifies is the power to restrict the movement of people suspected of threatening national security or harboring terrorist ideas. The legislation allows authorities to expand areas where police can set up checkpoints and restrict access, without a court order, to public places if deemed vulnerable to terrorists.