Worst-case scenario: France rehearses Games anti-terror response


Hiding behind a "Black Wolf", a state-of-the-art nine-ton armored vehicle, a group of armed men in black slowly make their way towards a 19th-century chateau in the southern suburbs of Paris.

An hour earlier, four hooded assailants equipped with assault rifles stormed the historic building in Draveil, which houses a police academy.

Last week members of the French national police took part in joint training exercises to test their response to a "terror" attack as the capital gears up to host the Olympic Games this summer.

The authorities are keen to demonstrate they are well prepared.

When members of an elite tactical unit known by the acronym RAID arrive from their base in Bievres, located around 30 kilometers (20 miles) away, regular police units serving as first responders already have the scene under control.

A briefing is organized at the improvised crisis command post in the police school car park.

With a map in hand, Captain Romain passes on to his team leaders the latest information gathered by the first responders -- the location of the attackers still alive as well as the number of victims and hostages.

Then a representative of the first responders helps the RAID team in its response to the simulated attack.

"The idea is to work on the inter-operability between the services," added Major Stephane, saying the exercise was designed to prepare for an attempted "mass killing".

In line with the convention in the French security forces, both Captain Romain and Major Stephane could be identified by their first names only.

Last week's attack on a Moscow concert hall, which killed at least 139 people, has raised fresh security fears for the Paris Olympics.

It echoed an assault on the Bataclan music venue in Paris in 2015 which left 90 people dead and was also claimed by the Islamic State group.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has promised that police and intelligence services will be "ready".

Two hundred members of the elite unit will be mobilized every day, including around a hundred for the sensitive Olympics opening ceremony on the Seine.

In early March, Celine Berthon, head of the DGSI domestic intelligence service, alluded in the Senate upper house to "terrorist organizations targeting the West".

"There is no doubt that as the event approaches, they will seize the opportunity presented by the Olympic Games," she said.

France had already raised its security alert to the highest level after the Moscow concert hall attack.

- 'Just the right time' -

As they make their way through the school, members of the elite unit come across several bodies -- with police students play-acting as casualties -- strewn across a floor stained with fake blood, in the hall and right up to the top of the spiral staircase leading to the attic.

Behind a door at the end of a corridor, an assailant is holding around 15 people hostage.

A video link has been established with RAID negotiators in training, located in a room two floors below.

When the assailant refuses to surrender, the police prepare to act.

A wired camera is slid under the door to ensure that the assailant is not lying in ambush. Then the team manages to quietly open the door.

The "terrorist" codenamed "Tango n°4" is finally "eliminated" and his captives released unharmed.

At the same time, one last assailant opens fire in the dormitories.

In the courtyard of an adjoining primary school, children are heard playing, making the scene at the police academy even more surreal.

At the entrance to the building, a drone operator activates his aircraft.

Once the members of the team are sure the access to the corridors is unimpeded, they set off, accompanied by Patton, a Belgian shepherd dog.

An exchange of fire ensues and the assailant is finally shot dead.

"This is a rehearsal," said the deputy head of the RAID's operational support, identifying himself only by his first name, Pierre.

"Everything went perfectly well," he said, noting that they have been conducting such exercises since the 2015 attacks and have by now obtained enough experience.

"It's coming in at just the right time to manage the Olympics."