French Jews Face Unprecedented Wave of anti-Semitic Attacks

In the wake of a raid on an Islamic terror cell, French police warn that more attacks on Jews are yet to come.

Shirli Sitbon
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Francis Levy inspecting tombstones desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas in the Jewish Cemetery of Cronenbourg near Strasbourg, France, after an anti-Semitic attack in 2010.
Francis Levy inspecting tombstones desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas in the Jewish Cemetery of Cronenbourg near Strasbourg, France, after an anti-Semitic attack in 2010.Credit: Reuters
Shirli Sitbon

French police who raided an Islamic terror cell over the weekend found documents showing the ring was planning new attacks against the Jewish community: 27,000 euros in cash, a list of Jewish organizations in the Paris area, ammunition, Islamist manuals and "extremely" anti-Semitic documents.

Following the raid on the cell believed responsible for a recent grenade attack on a kosher supermarket in a Parisian suburb, police protection was increased for synagogues, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions. At a meeting with Jewish community leaders, President Francois Hollande promised to give top priority to the evidently growing threat against Jewish targets by Islamic militants. In the raid, police killed the group's leader, Jeremie Louis-Sidney, a 33-year- old Salafist neophyte, and arrested a dozen members. But authorities say that even after the raid, there are still several similar anti-Semitic cells across the country. According to a former head of French Intelligence Services, between 100 and 200 extreme Islamic militants are potential terrorists.

"Several other similar groups are being watched. There's a real threat. Radical Islamism ... thrives on fantasies, on hatred towards our country and towards French Jews," said Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who warned that these small local cells are even harder to fight than international jihadist movements. "It's all the more difficult to battle against these groups when they're local. They're not foreign terror networks that come from outside, but networks that have grown in our country, our neighborhoods. They're not foreigners but French converts, French Muslims," said Valls.

Evidence police found during the weekend's arrest operations in Strasbourg, Cannes and the Paris suburb of Torcy shows that the group is likely responsible for the attack against the Naori kosher supermarket in in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles on September 19, authorities said. In that attack, which took place right after Rosh Hashanah, two hooded men dressed in black threw at least one hand grenade into the store, wounding one person. Six days later, forensics experts found the cell leader's fingerprint on a grenade.

'Die like a martyr'

They also found five wills, including Jeremie Louis-Sidney's, indicating he "probably wanted to die like a martyr," said Strasbourg's public prosecutor Patrick Poirret.

Investigators uncovered the cell soon after the attack in Sarcelles. Louis-Sidney was already considered a potential terror threat, and when his fingerprints were found, police put him under closer surveillance. His trips to Cannes, Torcy and Strasbourg lead them to the rest of the known cell members, some of whom were also listed as potential terror threats. Half of the gang members live in Cannes, where they went to the same mosque as Louis-Sidney, including a man who allegedly went to Sarcelles to plan the attack on the kosher supermarket.

Only a few months ago, Louis-Sidney was completely unknown to French Home Intelligence services. He was a small-time criminal convicted for dealing drugs in 2008. In March 2012, the same month that Mohammed Merah went on a killing spree against French soldiers and Jewish children and adults in Toulouse, Louis-Sidney came under the radar when he traveled to North African countries to meet with local imams, and started preaching radical Islam to younger Muslims. Interior Intelligence then added him to the jihadist threat list, although unlike Merah, he'd never been to a jihadist training camp abroad. Authorities say Louis-Sidney's "conversion" to militant Islamism was unusually rapid, taking only a few months. When police noticed he had shaved his beard on Friday, a day before the raid, they decided to act quickly.

"Until then he had a thick beard. Shaving it can mean an Islamist is about to turn to action," said Strasbourg prosecutor Poirret.

Security forces launched their operation on Saturday at 6 A.M., hoping to surprise Louis-Sidney at one of his two wives' homes. They say he was extremely determined, firing his .357 Magnum at the officers, who fired back and killed him. Another cell member, who was arrested in Torcy, tried to shoot at police with a .22 rifle. Interior minister Valls said police were searching for other suspects.

Several cell members have backgrounds similar to the ring leader's, police said. Three of them were convicted juvenile delinquents. Several were recent recruits to radical Islam - just like Merah, and before him the gang that abducted and killed French Jew Ilan Halimi, as well as Algerian terrorist Khaled Kelkal, who lead terror attacks in France in 1995. Authorities say these types of militants are France's biggest terror threat. They don't use mobile phones and turn radical by reading and watching Salafist Internet sites at home.

Authorities say prison and the Internet are the two main influences leading to Islamic radicalism. A 2008 government report says over 100 French prison inmates are preaching Islamist propaganda.

Increased exposure

Saturday and Sunday's arrests indicated that the Jewish community's exposure to terror has increased. Anti-Semitic attacks have increased over the past decades, and after Merah killed four Jews in Toulouse in March, there were numerous expressions of support via Facebook and graffiti. After last month's attack on the kosher market in Sarcelles, extremists posted online messages calling to kill Jews and French nationals, and after Saturday's raid, people fired blanks at a synagogue in the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil. Sarcelles, home to a traditionally religious Sephardi community, is widely thought to be a dangerous place for Jews.

French authorities ban racial and religious statistics, yet most anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated in recent years evidently were committed by young Muslims. In July, Valls noted that anti-Semitism had grown in poor neighborhoods. "A certain type of anti-Semitism was born in these neighborhoods and suburbs. Some people there consider Jews as the enemy," he said.

On Sunday Jewish community leaders called again on Muslim leaders to act against Islamist radicals and extremist imams. "Salafism is a form of Nazism," said Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF ). "We don't want to associate in any way moderate Islam and Salafist extremists, yet I'd like to hear Muslim leaders not only say that anti-Semitism must be fought, but actually take serious action against it," said Joel Mergui, president of the Consistoire, another prominent French Jewish organization.

Yet the head of France's Muslim Council said his community had no responsibility for growing extremism. "More than a million Muslims pray in French mosques, yet they don't turn violent. Extremist preachers don't have any influence on them," said Mohammed Moussaoui. "The ones who turn violent are not common worshipers, but former delinquents ... who have been to public schools and youth detention centers. Society as a whole should wonder whether it's responsible for this."

French President Francois Hollande received Jewish community leaders on Sunday. In recent days and for the first time since his election in May, he has put security center stage and, like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, promising to fight violence and terror. Some observers suspect that Hollande, whose approval rates have plunged, has gotten closer to his tough-talking, popular interior minister Valls to regain some public support.

Yet the presidential palace stressed that Hollande received the Jewish community leaders because they asked to see him. Hollande vowed to protect the community, yet it is of course impossible to deploy policemen in front of all of France's synagogues, Jewish schools and businesses. French news reports say policemen are also complaining that instead of going after criminals, they are keeping watch on Jewish institutions, which some consider a waste of their time. There are also more and more French Muslim police, and some are reportedly pleading not to be given synagogue surveillance duty.

Although there are no official figures, the Jewish population of France is estimated at 700,000, just over one percent of the total population. They live mainly in and around Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg.

There was an increase of 45% in the number of anti-Semitic acts in the first during the first eight months of 2012 compared to the same period last year, according to the national Jewish Community Protection Service. According to the Interior Ministry, 386 anti-Semitic acts were perpetrated during that time, including 101 acts of violence and vandalism and 285 threats.



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