PARIS, (Reuters) - French police arrested four suspected Islamist militants near Paris on Tuesday as part of an investigation into the recruitment of volunteers by al Qaeda insurgents in Mali, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said.
France's intervention in Mali to rid its former colony of Islamist fighters has prompted the authorities to increase security against possible reprisal attacks on its interests in mainland France and abroad.
Anti-terrorism judge Marc Trevidic, who is in charge of the operation, told Reuters last month that France needed more robust local policing, better intelligence sharing and the ability to infiltrate small radical Islamist groups if it hopes to fight new security threats on its soil.
Analysts say the insurgency that seized the north of Mali is paving the way for attacks on France as more French Muslims of African origin were finding a cause in the conflict.
"France is really being singled out at the moment," said Anne Giudicelli, consultant with national security specialists Terrorisc.
"It's being accused of wanting to occupy Muslim territory and that could clearly push some individuals to take action, or encourage others to build up a network," she told Reuters.
A police source said three of the four men arrested on Tuesday were Franco-Congolese and one was Malian.
Valls said the arrests had come after a long investigation into al Qaeda recruitment rings led by Trevidic.
"There is an operation ongoing in the Paris region, conducted by the DCRI (domestic security service), which comes after the arrest of an individual a few months ago on the border between Mali and Niger," he told BFM TV.
That man was a Franco-Congolese social worker named Cedric Lobo, 27, who was arrested in Niamey, the capital of Niger, while trying to reach the historic Malian city of Timbuktu to join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the source said.
He was subsequently extradited to France, where he was charged with planning attacks and remanded in custody.
"ENEMY FROM WITHIN"
French nationals drawn to violent militant groups had a number of points in common, said Interior minister Valls, who has taken a hard line on law and order and warned France is facing an "enemy from within."
"The profiles are often individuals that have had problems with the law, been involved in drug trafficking, and have sometimes converted to radical Islam either in prison, through the Internet or by travelling overseas," Valls told reporters.
French anti-terrorism judges have opened a number of preliminary investigations in the past year into individuals suspected of links to what they say are Malian terrorist cells.
Valls said police had stopped several individuals trying to travel from France to the Sahel - a vast swathe of semi-arid territory stretching from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east - known as a base for traffickers and Islamist militants.
He said a "handful" of French nationals had already joined al Qaeda-linked groups.
"There is no direct threat, but there are threats on the Internet, on social networks, calling on people to wage war, to attack French interests," Valls said.
France has tightened security in public buildings and on public transport, although it has kept its security alert level at red, signifying "probable threats", one down from the scarlet level which means "definite threats".
Highlighting the threat overseas, Paris has raised its travel warning for its citizens across the Muslim world.
The embassy in Tunis on Monday confirmed that a French school in the Tunisian capital had been sprayed with graffiti warning of reprisals after France's intervention in Mali.