WASHINGTON – Right-wing extremist groups in the United States are influencing French groups, spreading anti-government conspiracy theories in Europe, a top French intelligence official said on Wednesday.
France’s national intelligence and counter-terrorism coordinator, Laurent Nunez, has been in Washington this week for meetings with US officials, such as his US counterpart, Avril D. Haynes, Director of National Intelligence.
Relations between Paris and Washington strained last month after a US deal to sell Australia’s nuclear submarines ended a French contract.
Mr Nunez did not mince words, saying there remains a “serious bilateral crisis”. Nevertheless, French President Emmanuel Macron authorized Mr Nunez’s visit as part of efforts to defuse the diplomatic dispute and restore high-level communication between the two governments.
According to US officials, cooperation between intelligence services, which is often removed from politics, is generally far more stable than relations between heads of state, and has been so with France. French officials said they are continuing to work together on a wide range of counter-terrorism issues in Syria, Africa and Afghanistan and threats from domestic extremist groups.
“As far as extreme right-wing threats are concerned, the developments we are seeing in France are largely taking place in the United States,” Mr Nunez said.
In previous years, extreme right-wing groups in France were open about their activities, were less violent and had different motivations, he said. But right-wing extremists were now old, Mr Nunez said, and they are often people whose activities are not known to the French authorities.
“They want to organize themselves into secret networks,” he said. “There is no more visibility. They are ready to take violent action, which can be compared to terrorists.”
He said the groups’ targets have spread from mosques and Islamic groups to institutions of the French state. Like American groups, many extremist groups have embraced conspiracy theories about the government’s actions.
In the past five years, Mr Nunez said, French officials had destroyed six extremist cells that had weapons or explosives stored and were plotting attacks.
French officials have not found an “operational link” between domestic extremist groups and the United States. But French groups have drawn inspiration from other movements outside the country, including QAnon, Mr Nunez said.
QAnon Former President Donald J. There is a baseless conspiracy theory among some Trump supporters who believe that a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs the world.
US and European officials have been tracking the spread of QAnon in Europe, which accelerated at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, some far-right groups in Germany began to adopt QAnon principles. Mr Nunez said a similar incident was happening in France.
“Some individuals are adopting QAnon’s logic,” he said. “They are thinking that the government has a hidden agenda and is working against its own population.”
French officials are following the development of extremist groups in the United States, especially after the Capitol attack on January 6.
“We can see that his motivation is the same,” Mr Nunez said. “They are fighting against democracy.”
France, like the rest of the world, is watching for signs of al Qaeda returning to Afghanistan or gaining strength under the new Taliban government of Islamic State.
The most devastating terrorist attack in France, the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, was partly planned in Syria. Mr Nunez said it would be difficult for groups to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks in Europe. He said the network that brought fighters from Syria to France does not exist for extremists in Afghanistan.
So far, France has not seen an influx of people from Europe into Afghanistan hoping to join the Taliban. Still, Mr Nunez said it would be important to closely examine Afghan refugees.
The Taliban’s failure to prevent Islamic State attacks during the evacuation from Kabul airport has also raised doubts about the new Afghan government’s ability to prevent terrorist threats from emerging in Paris, Mr. Nunez said.
“We have to see if al-Qaeda leaders are going to Afghanistan,” he said. “Will the Taliban be able to control and destroy those chambers?”