Paris Attacks Trial Unfolds in Shadow of COVID

As France revisits its deadly 2015 wave of jihadist strikes with a major terrorism trial that opened this week, the threat of future attacks remains a clear and present danger here and across the European Union, experts say, even as the region focuses on a very different crisis in COVID-19.On the eve of Wednesday’s opening of the Charlie Hebdo trial, Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin warned that France’s threat level remained “extremely high.”Meanwhile, the EU law enforcement agency Europol described the changing, complex and still potent nature of jihadist and other threats, with coronavirus potentially feeding extremist action.“Groups try to make use of the COVID situation either to enforce their ideology or to call for action,” Europol’s deputy executive director, Wil van Gemert, said in an interview, noting Islamists as well as right-wing groups are profiting from the health crisis.“Our worry is for the future, when we come out of this COVID period with many more people [filling public spaces],” and rising questions and dissatisfaction with government handling of the crisis, van Gemert said.All of this, he added, could lead “to more violence, extremism and potential terrorism.”Laurent Sourisseau, chief editor of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, leaves the courtroom during a break on the opening day of the trial of the 2015 Paris attacks, at Paris courthouse, France, Sept. 2, 2020.Competing headlinesYet in some ways, the kickoff of the January 2015 Paris terrorist attacks trial seemed a throwback to another era.Its arrival jostled against headlines of French schools reopening amid a worrying rise in coronavirus cases and of the government’s $118 billion stimulus plan to reboot France’s COVID-battered economy.Adding to the sense of a page turned, all of the perpetrators of the 2015 attacks on France’s satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket are dead. Instead, 14 people — four in absentia — face charges of providing logistical support in the nearly back-to-back strikes that killed 17 people.FILE – An injured person is transported to an ambulance after a shooting, at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s office, in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015.The 10-week proceedings will also be filmed, a first for a terrorism trial in France, underscoring its historical significance.In November, France will mark the five-year anniversary of the Bataclan attacks that killed 130 people in and around Paris. Only one of the suspected assailants remains alive, Salah Abdeslam, 30, with another trial coming up at an unscheduled date.“I think the population’s main worry is COVID-19. Everybody speaks about it, everybody is concerned,” said Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, director of the French Association of Terrorist Victims, AfVT.“But terrorism is still here,” he added. “Terrorism is still a very big threat.”Moving onFor many ordinary French, events have moved on. There are fears of another COVID lockdown, with the country reporting some of its highest daily cases in months, including more than 7,300 Wednesday alone.A health worker prepares to collect a nasal swab from a person at a COVID-19 testing site in front of the city-hall in Paris, France, Sept. 2, 2020.Debates over race and colonialism are again bubbling over, not only from the spillover of the U.S. Black Lives Matter protests, but also after an article in a right-wing magazine portrayed a Black, African-born lawmaker as a slave. Police are again out in force on the streets, not guarding against potential terrorists or yellow-vest protesters but enforcing compulsory mask requirements.While Europe has reinforced its law enforcement capacity and cooperation against terrorism — seen in strong numbers of thwarted attacks — there is always a chance the pandemic could reprioritize funds and capacity, Europol’s van Gemert said.”We have seen an increase in activities you could call extremist” during the pandemic, he added. “I’m not saying it’s directly linked to terrorism, but there are an extreme field of actors who could turn to violent activities.  “And in general, a weaker economy means a stronger criminal economy,” he added of another coronavirus fallout.Attacks down, but threat remainsStill, the number of attacks is down. Last year, EU member states reported just more than half the number of attempted, foiled or failed attacks, at 119, as in 2015, according to Europol, which publishes annual terrorism assessment reports. Ten people died from terrorist strikes across the region in 2019, compared with 360 four years prior.The Islamic State group and al-Qaida, which claimed various degrees of responsibility in the multiple 2015 Paris attacks, are weakened and splintered, losing former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Today’s threats are increasingly coming from individual “lone wolves” or small cells, Europol says.FILE – Police officers storm the kosher market where a gunman held several hostages in Paris, France, Jan. 9, 2015.“We know that it will be difficult to organize something like November 13 [Bataclan attacks] — something very organized with many jihadists,” said Denoix de Saint Marc, of AfVT. “But every day we are preventing a new terrorist attack from somewhere.”Both the Islamic State and al-Qaida have also evolved and spread, including southward from the Sahel, where France’s 5,000-plus-man Barkhane anti-terrorist force is stationed. Last month, six French aid workers were killed by armed gunmen in Niger, although responsibility for the attacks remains unclear.Lawyers and security officers arrive at the Paris courthouse for the second day of the 2015 attacks trial in Paris, France, Sept. 3, 2020.On Monday, Interior Minister Darmanin noted more than half of terrorist attacks thwarted since 2013 took place over the last three years, while French anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard estimated a half-dozen had been foiled in recent months alone.“The level of terrorism risk is still high,” Ricard told France-Info radio, noting it came from a mix of sources, including former Islamic State fighters and local threats.France counted among Europe’s biggest exporters of Islamic State fighters, including some believed to be involved in the 2015 attacks.Many are dead, but several dozen are still believed to be in Iraq and Syria, along with their spouses and children. Among them, experts believe, is Hayat Boumedienne, the girlfriend of one of assailants in the January 2015 Paris attacks, and a defendant in the current trial.

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