French national police chief says threat of terror attack on France hits peak

PARIS (AP) — France is facing a "peak" terror threat, and authorities suspect al-Qaida's North African affiliate of plotting a conventional bomb attack on a crowded target, the national police chief said Wednesday.

The warning from National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard came on the eve of national protests that unions hope will send millions into city streets, and was the latest warning in a recent drumbeat from French officials that the public needs to be more alert about terrorism.

"France is today under threat. For that matter, French people need to get used to it," he told Europe-1 radio. "We're now facing a peak threat that can't be doubted. There is a specific threat against French interests."

"We have serious indications, coming from reliable intelligence, saying that there's an important risk of an attack," he said, adding that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, "is targeting us in particular."

Last week, there was a false bomb alert at the Eiffel Tower, and investigators are looking into an anonymous phone call that prompted police to evacuate the most-visited monument in the tourism-oriented country.

AQIM claimed responsibility for last week's abduction of five French nationals and two Africans in northern Niger. Pechenard said the group isn't thought to have the means to launch a nuclear or biological attack in France, but could carry out assassinations or attacks using conventional explosives.

"In order to do the maximum possible damage (such an attack) would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store or a gathering," Pechenard said.

Last week, the French Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by AQIM.

Counterterrorism officials in France say the ban is just one of several factors that have made France a target of the group. Another was France's military logistical support for a July raid by Mauritanian forces against the group that left six of its militants dead. AQIM has its base in a vast swath of African desert.

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands are expected to take to the streets across France for demonstrations against the government's pension reform. A previous round of protests earlier this month brought more than 1 million people out.

Pechenard said he didn't believe the protests would be a terrorist target.

But in an underground nerve center at Paris police headquarters, agents were bracing for any possibility, laying out maps of the planned march route in the capital and going over deployment plans.

Olivier Bagousse, who runs the Paris police department's Command and Information Center, said authorities have stepped up their alert level following recent intelligence that France is under high threat.

"For the last few weeks, we have been particularly sensitive. Our staffers have been encouraged anew to be on the lookout," he told The Associated Press in a restricted-access zone at police headquarters, which sits across the square from Notre Dame Cathedral. "We are very vigilant."

The center resembles a small-scale police version of NASA's Mission Control: Officers plot police positions on a big-screen electronic city map — think Google Maps — and keep tabs on a wall of TV monitors feeding in video from some of the 400 closed-circuit cameras scattered throughout the city.

Using a computer's joystick, one officer remotely zooms the lens on a camera atop the famed Arc de France in and out — peering down the bustling Champs-Elysees.

Authorities are straddling a fine line between keeping the public watchful and sowing panic or at least, as one police spokesman described it, "a situation where people start seeing potential bombs everywhere."

France's government has maintained its national terrorism threat level at "red," the second-highest level, since 2005. The next notch up — "scarlet" — would give authorities draconian powers, such as the ability to ground flights and shutter railway stations.

France suffered waves of deadly terrorism by Islamic radicals in the 1980s and 1990s, and successive governments responded by strengthening the country's counterterrorism arsenal.

Police officials say that policy has paid off: At a time when other Western countries like Spain, Britain and the United States have faced large-scale terrorism over the last decade, France hasn't been hit at home since 1996.

Many counterterrorism officials say the country is facing the greatest risk since then. Despite the calls for more vigilance, Pechenard said: "I don't want to give the impression that France is aflame."