WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Far-right groups in the United States have influenced French groups, spreading anti-government conspiracy theories in Europe, France’s top intelligence official said on Wednesday.
The official, Laurent Nuñez, French coordinator of national intelligence and the fight against terrorism, visited Washington this week for talks with American officials such as his American counterpart, Avril D. Haines, director of national intelligence.
Relations between Paris and Washington were strained after a US deal last month to sell Australian nuclear submarines, which ended a French contract.
Mr. Nuñez did not mince his words, saying that “the serious bilateral crisis” remained. Still, French President Emmanuel Macron authorized Mr. Nuñez’s visit as part of efforts to quell diplomatic wrangling and restore high-level communications between the two governments.
Cooperation between intelligence services, often devoid of politics, is generally much more stable than relations between heads of state, and this has been the case with France, according to US officials. French officials said they continue to work together on a wide range of counterterrorism issues in Syria, Africa and Afghanistan and threats from domestic extremist groups.
“When it comes to threats from the far right, the developments we are seeing in France are quite similar to what is happening in the United States,” Nuñez said.
In previous years, far-right groups in France were open about their activities, less violent and had different motivations, he said. But the right-wing extremists were now older, added Mr. Nuñez, and they are often people whose activities the French authorities do not know.
“They want to organize themselves into clandestine networks,” he said. “There is no more visibility. They are ready to commit violent actions, which can be compared to terrorists. “
The targets of the groups have extended from mosques and Islamic groups to French state institutions, he said. Like American groups, many extremist groups have adopted conspiracy theories on government actions.
Over the past five years, said Nuñez, French authorities have dismantled six extremist cells that had accumulated weapons or explosives and were planning attacks.
French authorities have not found “operational links” between national extremist groups and the United States. But French groups have drawn inspiration from other movements outside the country, including QAnon, Nuñez said.
QAnon is a baseless conspiracy theory among some supporters of former President Donald J. Trump who believe that a Satan-worshiping pedophile cabal is ruling the world.
US and European officials have been following the spread of QAnon in Europe, which intensified at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Some far-right groups in Germany, for example, have started to embrace QAnon theories. Mr. Nuñez said a similar phenomenon is happening in France.
“Some people have adopted the logic of QAnon,” he said. “They think the government has a hidden agenda and is acting against its own people. “
French officials have been following the developments of extremist groups in the United States, particularly after the attack on the Capitol on January 6.
“We can see that their motivation is the same,” Mr. Nuñez said. “They are fighting against democracy.
The French, like the rest of the world, are watching for signs of Al Qaeda returning to Afghanistan or the strengthening of the Islamic State under the new Taliban government.
France’s most devastating terrorist attack, the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, was partly planned in Syria. Mr. Nuñez said it would be more difficult for groups to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks in Europe. The network that brought fighters from Syria to France does not exist for extremists in Afghanistan, he said.
So far, the French have not observed a flow of people to Afghanistan from Europe in the hope of joining the Taliban. Still, Mr. Nuñez said it would be important to keep a close eye on Afghan refugees.
The Taliban’s failure to stop ISIS attacks during the Kabul airport evacuation also raised doubts in Paris about the ability of the new Afghan government to prevent the emergence of terrorist threats, a added Mr. Nuñez.
“We need to watch if the leaders of Al Qaeda move to Afghanistan,” he said. “Will the Taliban be able to control and dismantle these cells?”