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Ghlam: the terror suspect who escaped French intelligence radar

M6 - Sid Ahmed Ghlam was arrested on Sunday

Sid Ahmed Ghlam, the terror suspect arrested on Sunday for allegedly planning to attack churches in France, was known to police following two trips to Turkey and at least one visit to war-torn Syria.

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Police said they were also aware that he used his Facebook profile to “express his desire to leave for Syria”.

He had been taken into custody and questioned on his return from a trip to Turkey.

But while he had been under surveillance for 16 months, police found nothing solid enough to warrant further investigation.

The 24-year-old Algerian, living and studying in France since 2011, was arrested purely by chance Sunday after apparently shooting himself in the leg by accident.

He is also suspected of killing 32-year-old fitness instructor Aurelie Châtelain earlier that morning.

Police say they have identified her DNA on Ghlam’s clothes, but the link between him and Châtelain, who was found slumped in her car with her laptop still plugged in, has not been established.

‘Arsenal of weapons’

Ghlam, wounded and bleeding out on the pavement near his student residence, called the ambulance service.

When the ambulance crew arrived, they immediately recognised a gunshot wound and alerted the police, as stipulated by French law. A trail of blood later led officers to Ghlam's car, containing an AK-47 assault rifle and handguns.

Back in Ghlam's flat in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, they discovered an “arsenal of weapons” including more assault rifles, as well as police armbands that would have allowed him to pass as an undercover officer and magnetic police lights that attach to car roofs.

Police also found documents in his apartment apparently relating to the Islamic State (IS) group and al Qaeda, and, on a laptop and three mobile devices, evidence he had been in touch with a contact in Syria who had “clearly asked him to target a church”, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Heightened alert

The arrest comes some three months after Islamic extremists gunned down 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, a policewoman and four others at a Jewish supermarket in a three-day reign of terror in the French capital.

The revelations about a planned attack that again escaped the radar of French intelligence services have highlighted the danger for France, which is often singled out by jihadists as a prime target.

Several of Ghlam's friends and family have since been detained. However, his sister told AFP that her brother was not an extremist. "My brother did not change. He was not radicalised. I am shocked by all that, we do not believe it."

His brother-in-law, however, told reporters that “he didn’t think of me as a real Muslim because I am a moderate – I condemn what he has done”.

Hundreds of French nationals have joined jihadist ranks in Iraq and Syria, accounting for almost half the European fighters there, according to a report released this month by the Senate.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said 1,573 French citizens or residents had been implicated in "terror networks", 442 of whom were currently believed to be in Syria and 97 of whom had died there.

The fear is that many of these radicalised citizens will return and carry out attacks on French soil.

After the January attacks, security at sensitive sites such as religious buildings and media houses have been "permanently adapted to deal with the threat," said Cazeneuve.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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