Despite putting unprecedented security measures in place for Euro 2016, France remains deeply concerned over the jihadists’ ability to strike a soft target. Millions of foreign visitors and the world’s press are set to descend on the country for a month of sporting action from Friday -- creating endless nightmares for its overstretched security services.
“From the point of view of preparation, we have done as much as possible. Everyone has been mobilised: police, paramilitaries, many soldiers,” a senior counter-terrorism official told AFP, on condition of anonymity. But, he said, “to be totally honest, I’m worried.”
President Francois Hollande acknowledged the threat on Sunday, though he tried to put a brave face on it.
“This threat will last for a long time, unfortunately, so we must do everything to ensure that the Euro 2016 is a success,” he told France Inter radio.
Hollande’s government introduced a state of emergency in the wake of last year’s jihadist attacks in Paris, allowing police to raid homes and place people under house arrest with minimal oversight.
But the challenge of monitoring those who have returned from Syria and Iraq, or who have snuck into Europe using false passports or with the influx of refugees, has overwhelmed the continent’s security services. “What really worries us above all is the guys who are already here in Europe -- guys that are already in Germany for example, that we haven’t seen arrive, that the Germans haven’t found, who have stayed quiet and waited,” said the official. “We have re-established some borders, but we shouldn’t dream -- borders cannot be controlled.”
A recent incident thousands of kilometres away has further darkened the mood. On May 13, in a town north of Baghdad, militants attacked a cafe where Real Madrid supporters regularly meet, killing 16 people with automatic weapons and grenades.
And tensions were raised further on Monday, when Ukraine’s security services said they had arrested a suspected far-right extremist Frenchman with an arsenal of weapons and explosives who was allegedly planning “15 terrorist strikes” before and during the tournament. While fan zones and stadiums will be under heavy guard and surveillance, a bigger risk may exist in adjoining areas.
The attacks on November 13 in Paris that killed 130 people demonstrated that hitting random “soft targets” such as bars and restaurants was just as effective in generating fear. “If Daesh claims an attack and promises more, everyone will leave. In any case, how could we continue to have a football party while we’re burying victims?”