A suspected member of a terror cell planning simultaneous attacks in France had tried to “enter Britain on a false passport”, according to reports.
The UK link to the suspected terror unit came as the US warned its citizens that Europe is facing a “heightened risk of terror attacks” at Christmas markets and other seasonal holiday events.
The US State Department said it had “credible information” that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and al-Qaeda were planning attacks and focusing on the “upcoming holiday season”.
It specifically warned American travellers to exercise caution at “holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets”.
The message came as fresh details emerged over the arrest of seven suspects in France thought to be in the advanced stages of planning coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris and Marseille, southern France. Six were unknown to security services. Four were seized in Strasbourg.
On Monday, Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, said that the arrest of the suspects, who were of French Moroccan and Afghan origin, followed a tip-off from a foreign government.
According to Le Parisien newspaper, one of them was a Moroccan political refugee domiciled in Portugal called Hicham el Hanafi, 26, who intelligence services shadowed after he tried to enter Britain “carrying a false French passport”.
It was unclear where or how he sought to enter the UK and whether he was arrested while trying to do so.
According to Le Parisien, Portuguese security services had El Hanafi in their sights for the past few months, issuing a warning to other countries that he was radicalised.
After “travelling a lot around Europe”, he was arrested in Marseille along with the Afghan national housing him. Police believe he was tasked with collecting funds to buy weapons and was planning a lone attack in the southern Mediterranean city.
Five suspects, petty criminals suspecting of running the logistical arm of the cell, were arrested in June ahead of the Euro 2016 football tournament over fears they intended to strike. Security services seized them after they took out suspect loans to buy weapons. Two, Nasser B, 38, et Lamary N, 40, were remanded in custody and charged.
However, police were long unable to unmask the cell’s “action” unit. According to Le Parisien, intelligence agents tried to “lure” them into a trap by posing as arms dealers offering to drop off Kalashnikovs in a forest cache in exchange for 4,000 in cash. Camouflaged agents were posted at the depot spot 24 hours a day.
After months of silence, the agents finally intercepted the cell’s encrypted exchanges with a Syria-based handler and arrested them.
Four were based in Strasbourg, eastern France.
One, known only as Yassine B, 37, was a primary school caretaker with no previous convictions and on no watch list, described as a “model employee”. An automatic pistol and a submachine were reportedly found at his home.
He and a certain Hicham M spent several months in Syria after travelling to Cyprus and had both recently returned to France. Another two automatic pistols and documents indicating their allegiance to Isil were recovered. Officers found an Uzi machine gun at the home of a third suspect, Zakaria M, 35, among those arrested. A certain Sami B.Z, 36, was in charge of logistics, according to Le Parisien.
Three other suspects, El Hanafi, along with an Afghan and a third man suspects of providing shelter, were arrested in Marseille.
More than 230 people have been killed in attacks on French soil since January, 2015, when Islamist militants killed 17 people in Paris in an attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The US military said it expected Isil to resort to more traditional terrorist attacks after it loses its twin city strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, both of which are under pressure.
“We don’t think they going to become an organisation that no longer presents a danger once Raqqa and Mosul are taken away,” said Col John Dorrian, the spokesman for the US-led coalition against Isil.
“What they are going to do is devolve into the type of terror organisation that we’ve known they were all along and continue to try to do external operations and try to motivate lone wolf attackers.”
The State Department warning does not mention any specific countries as being particularly at risk but notes that the last year has seen attacks in Belgium, France, Germany, and Turkey. The warning makes no mention of Britain.
“The Department of State alerts US citizens to the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, particularly during the holiday season. US citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets,” the warning said.
“Credible information indicates the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil or Da’esh), al-Qaeda, and their affiliates continue to plan terrorist attacks in Europe, with a focus on the upcoming holiday season and associated events.
“US citizens should also be alert to the possibility that extremist sympathisers or self-radicalised extremists may conduct attacks during this period with little or no warning. Terrorists may employ a wide variety of tactics, using both conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests.”