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Paris Prosecutor François Molins said Friday that five men arrested in weekend raids in Strasbourg and Marseille had received orders from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq or Syria and were planning a terror attack for next week.
“An imminent attack was thwarted,” Molins told a news conference.
“A Strasbourg commando team and a man arrested in Marseille were told to acquire weapons by a commander from the Iraqi-Syrian region via encrypted apps that are popular among terrorists,” he said.
Molins spoke a day after anti-terrorism authorities took the unusual step of holding the men – four French and one Moroccan national – in custody without charge beyond the maximum period, citing a new anti-terrorism measure.
Handwritten documents pledging allegiance to the IS group and glorifying martyrdom were found at the house in Strasbourg, Molins said. Two of the five suspects had travelled to the Turkey-Syria border via Cyprus in March 2015.
Molins said the suspects intended to strike targets in and around Paris on December 1 but that authorities had not yet identified “the specific chosen target among all those considered by the group”.
Police sources said earlier this week that likely targets included the headquarters of France’s domestic intelligence agency (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure or DGSI) in the northwestern Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, the police offices at the Quai des Orfèvres and the nearby Palace of Justice.
Other targets included the Disneyland Paris amusement park 32 kilometres (20 miles) east of the city and the famed Champs-Elysées boulevard.
The information was collected from a smartphone belonging to one of the suspects after simultaneous police swoops in the southern port city of Marseille and Strasbourg in northeast France over the weekend. Investigators also found a USB stick with GPS coordinates.
Two other men arrested in the raids have since been released.
French President François Hollande later Friday confirmed that the planned attack had been major in scale.
“I want to congratulate the intelligence service, the police, and the magistrates who managed to dismantle this network, [and] who have protected us against a large-scale attack,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an event he was attending in Nîmes, in southern France.
“In November alone, the counter-terrorist services arrested 43 individuals of whom 28 have been brought before the court,” he added.
France has been under a state of emergency that grants police wider powers since a wave of attacks last year. The new arrests come at a sensitive time ahead of next spring’s presidential elections, ahead of which security has already emerged as a major theme.
More than 230 people have been killed in attacks on French soil since January 2015, including 130 in coordinated gun and suicide bomb strikes in Paris last November.
Officials remain worried that the IS group, which is fighting to defend territory it seized in Syria and Iraq, will call on its followers and jihadists returning from the region to increase attacks in the West.