Fifteen charged with planning jihadist attack on French Jews

Prosecutors in Paris presented their case against 15 defendants accused of planning jihadist attacks on French Jews and other targets.

The trial against the men, alleged members of the banned terrorist group Forsane Alizza, began Monday at the Correctional Tribunal of Paris and is expected to continue through June 23. They are accused of “participating in a group formed with a view to preparing terrorist acts,” according to

Among the alleged targets were five Jewish supermarkets of the Hyper Cacher chain, the news site reported, and several other Jewish businesses. A Hyper Cacher market in the Paris area was the scene of a deadly terrorist siege in January.

The names of the businesses targeted were recovered from a computer seized in 2012, when the group’s leader, 37-year-old Mohamed Amchalane, was arrested with other suspects during a police raid in the vicinity of Nantes, in western France.

In Amchalane’s possession, police also found three AK-47 assault rifles, a grenade and a pistol, Le Figaro reported. He also had manuals on how to carry out terrorist attacks using explosives, including dirty bombs, which contain radioactive material.

Amchalane maintained in court that he was neither involved in violent activity nor was planning to become involved. Forsane Alizza, Arabic for “knights of pride,” was a group dedicated to fighting Islamophobia, Amchalane’s lawyer said.

ISIS-inspired lone wolves seen as posing ‘significant’ threat to Jews

Jewish institutions, which have faced attacks in recent years by lone wolves — extremists who draw their inspiration from the like-minded but act on their own — now must be wary of returnees from the Iraq-Syria arena who are trained and indoctrinated by the jihadist group ISIS, top security consultants told JTA.

ISIS has “not only stated intentions to form a caliphate, but named U.S. and Jewish people as targets specifically,” said John Cohen, who until earlier this year was an undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security. “There’s a significant threat to Jewish communities.”

The threat became evident with revelations that Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect in the May 24 shooting attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels that killed four people, had allegedly been active with ISIS in Syria.

It’s not yet clear if Nemmouche was acting on orders and, if so, whether the orders came from ISIS.

Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University’s Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, said that when Nemmouche was arrested during a customs inspection of a bus in France, firearms were found wrapped in an ISIS flag. Also, a journalist held captive by ISIS has identified Nemmouche as one of his captors.

Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, which works with national and local Jewish community groups on security issues, said the Brussels attack raised red flags for Jews throughout the world.

“Their first mark outside of the theater” of combat “was a Jewish institution, and it wasn’t even an Israeli institution,” Goldenberg said. “They didn’t attack an embassy, a consulate or NATO headquarters. These are people who are not only inspired but are well trained, potentially equipped and potentially coming back to the Americas. Those are the ones who have us concerned.”

SCN is an arm of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has estimated that more than 100 Americans have fought or are fighting with ISIS, which is also known as Islamic State or ISIL.

Cohen and Goldenberg said that many American Jewish institutions have been trained and equipped for lone wolf attacks and are positioned to fend off strikes organized from abroad.

Most recently, in the April shooting attack on a Jewish community center in suburban Kansas City, lockdown procedures are believed to have kept the assailant out of the building, limiting fatalities to two people outside.

“In many respects the Jewish community, because of the work that we’ve done over the years, the Jewish community is well prepared to deal with that threat,” said Cohen, who consulted often with the Jewish community during his time at Homeland Security.

He noted improvements in equipment, in many cases paid for by a Homeland Security funding program, and increased awareness of suspicious activity and cooperation with local law enforcement.

The Secure Community Network and the institute where Cohen now lectures are planning a conference at Rutgers for Jewish communities here and overseas. Goldenberg said SCN also was establishing a campus security task force with Hillel.

Cohen said that in the wake of the Brussels attack, Homeland Security enhanced its already close relationship with the U.S. Jewish community.

“We worked to share our information with members of the Jewish community and to provide guidance to members of the community so that they are better prepared,” he said.

President Obama in his speech last week outlining his strategies to destroy ISIS said there was a possible — but not imminent — threat to the homeland.

“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” Obama said. “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.

“Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

Skeptics have said the threat is overstated. Daniel Benjamin, the top State Department official in Obama’s first term, exploded with sarcasm in comment to The New York Times on the day that Obama delivered his speech.

Benjamin, now the director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, accused top U.S. officials of “describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”

“It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems — all on the basis of no corroborated information,” he told the newspaper.

Cohen agreed that there was no immediate intelligence presaging an attack, but suggested it was beside the point.

“We know we have an organization that has exhibited a certain level of brutality, a certain level of sophistication in regard to activities and an interest in recruiting Americans,” he said. “We know they have acquired significant amounts of funding, that they have directly stated that the U.S. is one of the enemies they seek to combat and that they have employed rather sophisticated techniques to recruit Westerners.”

Westerners, Cohen said, are useful to ISIS most of all as potential sleepers.

“They don’t need Westerners to establish a caliphate,” he said.


Israel, Egypt cooperate

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Did an Israeli drone cross into Egyptian airspace over the weekend and fire a rocket at gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula who were about to launch a strike on Israel? Probably. Will any Israeli or Egyptian official admit it, even off the record? Probably not.

The official story coming out of Egypt is that it was the Egyptian military that attacked Jihadists in Sinai, killing five. The Egyptian army, which is presently controlling Egypt after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was forced from office, is wary of being seen as too close to Israel and the United States.

Asked whether Israel was behind the attack, Egyptian military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali declined to comment directly.

“There is an obligation between the two countries to coordinate attacks and inform each other of activities they conduct in Sinai due to the peace accords,” Ali said, referring to the historic treaty of 1979. 

An Israeli military spokesman sounded similarly opaque.

“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the Egyptian military maintain ongoing security coordination in order to contend with mutual threats,” Capt. Eytan Buchmann said.

Egyptian military analysts said it was likely that Israel was behind the strike.

“There is a lot of confusion about who attacked the terrorists. The Israelis say they did it and the Egyptians say they did it,” retired Egyptian Gen. Fathi Ali said. “I believe the Israelis did it but with Egyptian coordination. You need people on the ground to call in the coordinates of locations where terrorists are.”

There is widespread security coordination between Israel and Egypt that is increasingly important to their mutual interests.

“This cooperation is vital to both sides,” Eitan Shamir, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University said. “Both Israel and Egypt are concerned about the situation in the Sinai [peninsula] and neither country wants instability. They both have an interest in having quiet along their border.”

In the past few days, Egypt has embarked on a campaign against terrorist groups in the Sinai. Egyptian soldiers have destroyed hundreds of tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons between Egypt and Gaza, and is launching attacks similar to the drone strike over the weekend that was originally attributed to Israel and is now being credited to an Egyptian military helicopter.

In the past year, Israeli officials have grown increasingly worried about the growth of jihadist elements in Sinai, once a popular tourist destination for Israelis. Last week, Israel even closed down its airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat for two hours, after a warning from Egypt that a rocket attack from Sinai was imminent. 

Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the security ties between the two countries were public and close. The Egyptian intelligence chief visited Israel often and helped mediate cease-fires between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which took over Gaza in 2007.

After the fall of Mubarak and the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Israeli officials were concerned that the Egyptian military might back away from its relationship with Israeli security forces. Morsi had close ties with Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, after Morsi’s forced removal, the Egyptian army is playing an even more important role in the Arab world’s largest country with 85 million people. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations that maintain peace treaties with Israel.

“There is a lot of security cooperation, and it’s very important,” an Israeli diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “Egypt is the biggest and most important Arab country. When Egypt sneezes, the Arab world gets a cold. What happens there impacts everywhere.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if radical groups in Sinai come under enough pressure from Egypt, they could try to attack Israel to divert attention and garner support from other terrorist groups. As the Egyptian crackdown in the Sinai continues, Israeli officials say they expect more attempted attacks, and say that Israeli-Egyptian security coordination is even more important than it has been in the past.