Seven men who French authorities say were planning a terrorist attack have been arrested in France, the government announced Monday, sounding an alert about the continuing threat from terrorism barely a year after the attacks that killed 130 people in and around Paris.
The arrests followed an eight-month-long investigation led by France’s domestic intelligence service, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who said investigators were looking into the possibility that the plot involved a “coordinated attack aimed to hit several sites simultaneously” in the country.
The seven men were detained in the eastern city of Strasbourg and the Mediterranean port city of Marseille in an operation that began Sunday night, Cazeneuve said at a news conference, adding that the operation had “thwarted a terrorist attack that had been envisaged on our soil for a long time.”
Cazeneuve said that the seven men arrested, who ranged in age from 29 to 37, were a mix of French, Moroccan and Afghan citizens, but he did not provide a detailed breakdown. Six of them were unknown to French intelligence before the investigation began, he said, and the seventh, a Moroccan citizen, had been flagged to French authorities by what he called a “partner country.”
The arrests occurred a few days before the opening of the popular Christmas market in Strasbourg, which attracts more than 2 million visitors every year. In 2000, Islamist militants who had trained in Afghanistan and were active in France and Germany planned to bomb the market, but the plot was averted.
The mayor of Strasbourg, Roland Ries, said at a news conference Monday that the market was not the target of the latest plot. He said the market would go on unless there were a “direct and proven threat.”
Five people suspected of having links to the same network as the seven men were arrested June 14 — a few days into the Euro 2016 soccer tournament being held in France — and two of them were kept in custody, Cazeneuve said.
The arrests were not made public at the time. Only a day earlier, a 25-year-old Islamic State sympathizer killed a police captain and his companion in the town of Magnanville, outside Paris. But the soccer tournament, which stretched over a month, occurred without incident.
France has been under a state of emergency since the November 2015 attacks in the capital region. That gives authorities broad powers to conduct raids and detain people under house arrest, among other powers. President François Hollande has said the government will seek to extend the state of emergency until the presidential election next spring.
Islamic State militants carried out the November 2015 attacks, and men inspired by the group carried out an assault in Nice that claimed 86 lives on July 14, the Bastille Day holiday, and the killing of a priest in the northern town of St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray 12 days later.
France is wary that it may be hit again. Security and migration are among the main issues in the presidential campaign.
Cazeneuve said Monday that 418 people had been arrested in relation to terrorist networks since the beginning of the year, including 43 this month alone.
“The challenge is huge and zero risk can’t be guaranteed — those who guarantee it are lying to the French people,” Cazeneuve said, taking an implicit swipe at the right-wing critics of Hollande, who is expected to face a tough battle if he decides to seek re-election.