The three young Frenchmen were arrested as they tried to make their way to Syria to wage jihad. They had not harmed anyone in France or made plans to do so, according to the evidence at their trial in January, but in France these days, seeking to fight in Syria is enough to bring a charge of plotting terrorism — and in this case sentences of three to five years in prison.
France and much of Europe have grown steadily more concerned over the past year about the possibility that the main terrorist threat could come from their own citizens, European passport holders who can move relatively easily between their homelands and the battlefields of Syria, where Islamist rebel groups are fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In that climate, France is becoming especially aggressive by arresting would-be jihadis even before they leave the country or set foot on a battlefield.
On Sunday, French officials announced the apprehension of a suspect in the killings of three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month, a 29-year-old Frenchman said to have spent time in Syria last year.
On Monday, French authorities said they had arrested four men they described as jihadi recruiters operating in the Paris region and in the south of France and one French citizen living near Brussels, the latest in a string of cases intended to disrupt the flow of French citizens, usually young men of North African and Arab descent, to Syria.
French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve said on Monday that he and French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira would seek to pass legislation to expand the legal grounds for arrest and prosecution in cases involving plans for terrorist acts before any violence has happened.
France’s use of a pre-emptive strategy is being watched closely by other governments, many of them brushing aside concerns about civil liberties to reduce what they consider a substantial risk to their national security. All of them are mindful of similar terrorist threats.
France moved earlier and more aggressively than many other nations, in part because of the 2012 case of Mohammed Merah.
Merah, a French Muslim who had trained in Afghanistan, returned to his home city, Toulouse, and killed three French soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi who was the father of two of the children.
“We always had this worry,” said Ludovic Lestel, a French government prosecutor in Paris, referring to the phenomenon of Islamic extremists trained abroad who return and strike their home countries.
“But the Mohammed Merah case proved that a single person could go with a jihadi group to train himself and come back to perpetrate an attack in France,” Lestel said.
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