PARIS (Reuters) - French police arrested four people on Monday suspected of ties with Islamist groups fighting in Syria, the interior minister said, after the country introduced new measures to stop its citizens from becoming radicalized.
France, a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has targeted violent cells and self-radicalized operators planning attacks in the country since a Toulouse-based al Qaeda-inspired gunman shot dead seven people in 2012.
Monday’s arrests came a day after prosecutors said Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old Frenchman thought to have returned recently from Syria, had been arrested over the May 24 killing of three people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum.
“The fight against terrorists will happen not only in France, but all over Europe with no respite,” Bernard Cazeneuve told Europe 1 radio after the arrests in the Paris region and southern France.
He said the four people had either helped recruit radical Islamists for Syria or been part of jihadist networks there.
Fearing hundreds of Europeans could return home to carry out attacks after being trained in Syria, European Union member states are aiming to coordinate efforts to prevent Muslims becoming radicalized.
While there was no suggestion of a direct link between the arrest of Nemmouche after a random check in the southern city of Marseille on Friday and the four new ones, the French government has come under growing criticism for failing to stop its nationals - some as young as 15 - from heading to Syria.
“He was extremely dangerous and could have continued to act,” Cazeneuve said of Nemmouche.
France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, at about 5 million. It has had broad success at dodging attacks in large part due to its water-tight security apparatus and some of Europe’s toughest anti-terrorism laws, although analysts say they need to be adapted in light of the social media boom.
The government estimates about 300 French nationals are fighting in Syria, 120 are in transit between the two countries and about 100 others have already returned home.
To curb this, Cazeneuve unveiled some 20 measures in April that ranged from stripping people of French nationality, along the lines of new British legislation introduced last year, to preventing minors from leaving France without parental consent.
Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant, Euro-sceptic National Front party finished first in France in European Parliament elections just over a week ago, said the Nemmouche episode showed “the stupefying naivety of the government”.
Nemmouche’s ethnic background has not been made public, but Le Pen linked the case to migration from Muslim countries.
“We must put a stop to this mass immigration,” she told France Info radio, calling for improved surveillance, tougher border controls and special prison units for jihadist suspects.
Roger Cuikerman, head of France’s CRIF Jewish association, said he feared French citizens who had traveled to Syria would become “time bombs” when they return. He urged the government to give intelligence services more resources to track such people.
The arrest of Nemmouche brought back painful memories of the shooting of seven people, including four Jews, in 2012 at a school in the southwest of France by Mohamed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian heritage inspired by al Qaeda.
It came days before parliament is due to study a government-backed penal reform bill under which some offenders could be given sentences other than jail.
Supporters say the move will reduce the risk of Islamic radicalization of petty offenders in jail and alleviate the strain on overcrowded prisons. Right-wing critics have said it shows the government is weak on crime.
Additional reporting by Mark John; writing by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche