French right-wing cell planned to attack Muslims
Network intended ‘massive, unforeseen’ retaliation to any further jihadist attacks
Esteban Morillo, one of three ultra-right wing activists charged with involvement in the death of anti-fascist militant Clément Méric, arrives at a Paris courthouse. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
France has not known anti-Muslim violence comparable to what has occurred in Chemnitz, Germany, in recent days. But the dismantling by French police of an ultra right-wing network that planned to attack Muslims provides a chilling indication of the antagonism unleashed by the jihadist massacres of 2015 and 2016 in France.
Action des forces opérationelles was founded in August 2017 by a retired police officer called Guy Sibra, and had close to 100 members, most of whom used pseudonyms to avoid detection. Sibra called himself “Richelieu”. Names from the 17th-19th centuries were popular with other AFO militants. Some were disillusioned followers of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (recently renamed the Rassemblement National). Some were traditionalist Catholics.
Thirteen leading members of AFO, ranging in age from 32 to 69, were arrested between June 24th and July 23rd, after the group was infiltrated by an undercover agent. Four are still in custody.
Based on transcripts of police interrogations of the suspects, the newspaper Le Monde on Wednesday published a detailed, two-page description of the organisation.
Three of the 10 suspects are women. Most are from relatively privileged backgrounds. They include a nurse, a restaurant owner, a former soldier in Afghanistan and a mathematician who had worked in the arms industry. Many of their monthly meetings were held in a brasserie opposite the Pont Neuf in Paris.
The suspects said they were motivated by the November 13th, 2015 attacks, in which 130 people were killed by extremists from Islamic State, which is also called Isis. “I had the impression that the state could not protect me and my family,” a plumber who used the name “Olies” told police.
Most of the suspects now claim that their plans were hare-brained schemes which they had no intention of carrying out. Yet the head of the Paris section, identified as Bernard S, “reminded us at the end of every meeting that we had to recruit more, identify targets, etc. Every half hour, he repeated the same thing, over and over,” one of the suspects said.
The AFO organised itself in “regional commands” with colour-coded members. “Whites” were sympathisers who contributed to the website. “Greys” organised training in, for example, self-defence, map-reading and radio communications. “Blacks” were meant to take action.
In the event of further jihadist attacks in France, the AFO intended to stage “massive, unforeseen” retaliation in multiple locations, according to a document found in the home of a suspect.
AFO seemed to mirror the methods of Islamic State: encrypted communications; plans for synchronised attacks; the murder of religious leaders and arbitrary targeting based on religious affiliation.
Every member of AFO was asked to identify at least one “fundamentalist” imam. Clerics in the Paris suburbs of Nanterre and Sevran were mentioned as possible targets. “It was mad,” a 54-year-old telephone operator for a taxi company told police. He said the assassination campaign was really a “marketing” strategy to attract new recruits.
The group toyed with the idea of poisoning halal food in supermarkets in neighbourhoods with strong Muslim populations. Female members of AFO planned to wear full-length veils called niqabs to avoid arousing suspicion, then use syringes to inject food containers with poison. They intended to carry out tests on animals in August, and reconnoitred supermarkets in Paris suburbs. “It wasn’t meant to kill anyone, just make them sick,” the head of the Paris regional section told police.
The third plan was to throw grenades at Muslims praying in the streets, at mosques or Salafist bookshops. A variation would have been for an AFO militant on a scooter to drive through traffic, looking for Muslims in cars.
A suspect called Daniel R, aged 32, built a makeshift explosives laboratory where he filled recreational noise grenades intended for use in war games with triacetone triperoxide or TATP, the unstable, home-made explosive used by Isis suicide bombers. In telephone conversations, Daniel R referred to explosives as “tomatoes”.
“Fermat” was the code name for the 62-year-old mathematician who had worked for the weapons company Thales and the directorate general of armaments. He is suspected of inventing a remote device for detonating grenades from 200m.
Revelations about the AFO have coincided with the beginning of the 10-day trial of three skinheads charged with involvement in the violent death of Clément Méric, an 18-year-old student and anti-fascist militant, in June 2013.
One of the accused, Esteban Morillo, now 25, has since removed a tattoo saying travail-famille-patrie from his forearm. Morillo claims he did not know it was the motto of the Vichy collaborationist regime. He also claims to have forgotten that he “liked” Hitler’s Mein Kampf on his Facebook page.
The words “We want a French Hitler” were found on a USB stick belonging to one of the accused, on a photograph of the Nazi dictator with a French tricolour as a backdrop.