PARIS — Stoking fears of terrorism in a nation already on edge, French police on Monday were interrogating an airport baggage handler who was arrested at work with explosives and guns in his car, authorities said.
Police arrested Abdrazak Bessighir, 27, in a parking lot at Charles de Gaulle Airport on Saturday, authorities said. Officers found five bars of Yugoslav-made plastic explosive, two detonators and a fuse in the trunk of the car, along with a machine gun and a Colt .45 pistol, according to authorities.
Police arrested Bessighir's father, two brothers and a family friend and were questioning them Monday. It is not unusual for police here to round up relatives and associates of suspects during investigations of suspected terrorism, and authorities said nothing indicating that Bessighir or the others have ties to Islamic extremists.
Bessighir, a French citizen of Algerian descent, has worked for three years for Europe Handling, a company that employs 1,100 people at France's biggest airport, according to a company spokesman. The baggage handler has an excellent work record, said the spokesman, Robert-Noel Castellani.
"He worked on the runways loading and unloading luggage onto planes," Castellani said during a news conference. "His access badge to the security zone was renewed without problems in November. This young man has never drawn any kind of attention to himself."
The discovery of lethal explosives in the possession of an airport employee with access to planes alarmed police and the public here. France and neighboring nations are on high alert because of arrests and intelligence reports suggesting that Islamic terrorists have been preparing a strike during the holidays.
In the last two months, French, British and Spanish police pursuing interconnected cases have arrested several dozen people accused of being Al Qaeda terrorists. Many of the suspects, including eight detained in the Paris area this month, are Algerian veterans of combat in Chechnya and training camps in Afghanistan and Georgia.
The Paris-area suspects allegedly belonged to a network that was plotting an attack in France using explosives or chemical weapons and possibly focusing on Russian targets, according to the Interior Ministry. Searches turned up bomb-making materials, an anti-contamination suit and formulas for preparing toxic chemicals.
Whereas those operations resulted from lengthy surveillance involving intelligence services in other countries, authorities said a tip from an alert traveler brought about the weekend arrest at the airport.
The tipster, a military veteran, was walking through a parking lot before dawn Saturday when he heard a noise he recognized as a gun being loaded, police said. The traveler saw Bessighir handling a gun by his car and decided to report him, police said.
Police followed the baggage handler and arrested him after he worked a shift from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Bessighir lives with his parents, three brothers and four sisters in a small, middle-class-looking house in Bondy, a suburb in a heavily North African area northeast of Paris where a number of terrorism-related arrests have been made recently.
Neighbors said Bessighir was polite, worked hard and did not wear a long beard or otherwise dress or behave like an Islamic fundamentalist. He is apparently not among the known extremists in the voluminous files of counter-terrorism agencies, according to law enforcement sources. Some extremist groups active in immigrant communities and prisons here cultivate non-Islamic appearances, undercover-style, and use ideological and ethnic appeals to recruit young men who are not particularly religious.
One of the nightmares of counter-terrorism experts here is that terrorists will infiltrate airports or rail systems, in which scrutiny of employees is always a challenge.
The matter is especially delicate in France because the maintenance and service work force at airports includes a considerable number of Muslims and North Africans.
In Belgium, investigators this year discovered that suspects linked to an Al Qaeda plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris had jobs and badges that gave them access to secure zones of the Brussels airport. In Paris, airport security became a hot issue a year ago when Richard Reid, a Briton now imprisoned in the United States, managed to talk his way past police screeners onto an American Airlines flight to Miami and tried to ignite explosives rigged in his shoes while the plane was over the Atlantic.
Paratroopers carrying automatic weapons patrol French airports, and security officials have toughened screening of employees. Just last week, a Moroccan-French systems engineer formerly assigned to the air traffic control area of Charles de Gaulle went public with his complaint that he had been barred from work because he is a devout Muslim.
Identified in press reports as Said, the 27-year-old engineer accused police of investigating him and revoking his access to top-security areas after he reported that his airport credentials had been stolen.
Meanwhile, the interrogation period for the jailed baggage handler can continue until Wednesday.
Under anti-terrorism laws, investigators have four days to question Bessighir and the other detainees before giving them access to a lawyer and deciding whether to arraign them.