Guy Van Vlierden*
In France, police arrested ten people last weekend on suspicion of terrorist planning. Not jihadists this time, but far-right militants with Islamic targets in mind.
Two more direct opposites are hard to imagine. Yet a look at the group’s profile on the internet reveals a picture that is strikingly similar to jihadists, with organizations prone to violence hidden behind more mainstream ones, a mix of dangerous know-how and amateurism, and a transnational support base.
The ten people apprehended early Sunday morning lived in Paris and several locations in southern France, from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean island of Corsica. They are suspected of plotting attacks against radical imams, former Islamist prisoners who have been released, and veiled women randomly selected on the streets. According to a report on the French media platform Mediapart, they were in possession of several firearms and one of them had started to manufacture explosive devices.
Two suspects were identified: Guy Sibra (65), a former policeman and salesman of decommissioned military materiel, and Dominique Copain. They are said to be the founders of “Action des forces opérationnelles” (AFO), established in the autumn of 2017. According to Mediapart, the organization also includes a serving gendarme and several soldiers who had featured in investigations of the theft of weapons from a military base in September 2016. The weapons have not been recovered and the culprits have not been identified. Other AFO members are reportedly ordinary family men, spending their free time together in shooting clubs.
AFO presents itself on a website called “Guerre de France” (War of France). This appears to be its symbol.
As of June 24, the home page showed an image of the Eiffel Tower in Paris photoshopped into a battlefield , including a destroyed tank and a dead soldier. The image can be seen at the top of this article. A similar home page image is circulating on French media this week and is shown below. The stated aim of the website is to “prepare French civilian soldiers for combat on the national territory”.
The parallels are obvious – these visual messages have much in common with the threatening images that Islamic State supporters often distribute. Consider this message from the Islamic State propaganda magazine “Dar Al-Islam” – “May Allah Curse France”.
On the day after the arrests, the website administrator denounced the media reports linking his website to terrorist plots, but he admitted having witnessed the arrests “from the front row”.
The man identifies himself as a septuagenarian former captain of the French military “who does not have to apply for a gun permit anymore”. His website features manuals from the French army, including a 168-page guide to the use of firearms and a 195-page overview of different types of explosive devices.
Under the heading “Les adversaires” (the enemies), the website names the targets of all these weapons: “in the first place, the adherents of the Islamic system”. This line is followed by a defensive gesture: an explicit reference to French law on the freedom of the press is added along with the qualification that “not all Muslims are adherents of the Islamic system”. The chilling message is still plain, as the paragraph ends with this line: “…but the majority of the combatants facing the loyalist or patriotic camps will be Muslims”.
“Adding themselves to that base network”, the text continues, are those “in solidarity due to their proximity, their shared hatred towards the police, the army, and white people, and financial interests in trafficking, in particular of drugs. In particular, this concerns sub-Saharan Africans, even when they are of Catholic culture and origin.”
Further enemies include militants of the left, anarchists, and “the battalions of bourgeois-bohemian human rights defenders”.
The ground on which the war will be fought is divided into the national territory and the so-called “zones de non-France” (ZNF). These are “the lawless areas, the territories lost for the Republic, or more officially, the sensitive urban areas”, meaning the impoverished neighborhoods where people of foreign origins often make up a majority of residents. The website also links to a list of mosques in France and instructions on how to “easily calculate the distance to shoot”.
Openly connected to “Guerre de France” is the Facebook group “La lettre des résistants patriotes”, whose administrator is one of the people arrested. He also runs the blog “Réveil patriote”, where pictures were posted of a “training session” that was held in May in the Alps. They show members practicing techniques for self-defense and it could well be on that same occasion that improvised explosive devices were tested. According to confessions of some of the people arrested, explosives were tested last spring in woodlands in the east of France.
All the outlets and organizations noted above appear to be spin-offs of “Volontaires Pour la France” (VPF), founded shortly after the January 2015 attacks against Charlie Hebdo. According to its current co-presidents, former Front National MEP Ivan Blot and retired air force general Antoine Martinez, VPF is “engaged resolutely in the defense of the identity of the French nation and in the fight against Islamization”. In April of this year, it boasted of 800 members and its main account on Facebook has more than 9,000 followers.
Officially, the arrested AFO founders Sibra and Copain do not belong to VPF anymore. In addition, in a statement that was published shortly after the arrests, VPF insists that it is a legal organization, acting with full respect for the law. But it didn’t disapprove of the suspected terrorist plot, saying “nothing allows to confirm at this stage that the commando really envisaged acting” and noting that the arrests conveniently coincided with president Emmanuel Macron’s harsh words about “populist leprosy” in the migration debate.
It may be true that AFO is a radical splinter organization of VPF and not formally connected to the latter anymore. But an AFO document instructing its members on what they should do in case of an arrest says “members with responsible positions in VPF should remove their SIM cards as rapidly as possible”. This suggests that there is some overlap.
There’s no doubt that many VPF members are against any illegal or violent action, and this may be the case for its leadership too. Still, notable similarities with the jihadist landscape exist in the dynamics between a legally and openly operating organization and a hardcore radicalizing faction orbiting around it. It is in exactly this way that organizations like Shariah4Belgium, Islam4UK, Forsane Alizza or Die Wahre Religion lowered the threshold for youngsters to go to the Syrian war and join terrorist groups such as Islamic State.
Another parallel with the jihadist scene is that the presence of dangerous know-how, provided here by the military experience of several members, is often somewhat hidden behind a screen of amateurism. Reading all the rants of the “Guerre de France” administrator, for instance, gives the impression of a man so frustrated and obsessed that he is nearing insanity. But the same is true for some of the most successful Islamist hatemongers. In the latest wave of jihadist attacks, we have learned that sometimes it only takes one mentally unstable individual to inflict terrible violence.
In sum, it would be wise for security services to keep an eye on all the organizations that are feeding radicalism, including the more mainstream, law abiding groups. This does not apply in France alone. A third similarity with the jihadist scene is that national borders hardly exist for VPF and its spin-offs in the internet age. They have Facebook supporters all over Europe, including Belgium, where they are linked with established far-right groups such as “Vlaams Belang” and “Le Peuple”.
*Guy Van Vlierden is a journalist for the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. He specializes in issues relating to terrorism and extremism and also covers these issues in English on his personal blog emmejihad.wordpress.com.
 Sibra was arrested at home in Tonnay-Charente (Charente-Maritime), but hails from Corsica and also lived in Verniolle (Ariège). See https://www.sudouest.fr/2010/11/14/le-rendez-vous-des-amateurs-d-art-238636-1391.php – http://www.courrierdelouest.fr/actualite/durtal-un-etal-corse-qui-detonne-a-la-brocante-23-09-2012-87148 and https://www.societe.com/etablissements/monsieur-guy-sibra-487950305.html