Terrorism motive eyed in Paris police stabbing attack

  • >>Aurelien Breeden, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-10-05 17:12:05 BdST

Security personnel is seen after an attack on the police headquarters in Paris, France, Oct 3, 2019. REUTERS

French anti-terrorism prosecutors Friday took over the investigation into the killing of four people at Paris Police Headquarters, suggesting investigators were considering a possible terrorism motive.

The exact reasons for the opening of a terrorism investigation were unclear, but it was likely to raise questions about whether the suspect — who worked in the Paris police intelligence unit, a highly sensitive department — had been sufficiently vetted.

Prosecutors in Paris said only that “elements gathered at this stage by investigators” had led them to hand the case over to the national anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office.

They did not say whether an interview with the suspect’s wife or analysis of his cellphone and computer had guided their decision. A spokesman for the anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office could not be reached to comment.

Earlier on Friday, French authorities had cautioned that investigators were not ruling out any motives in the stabbing rampage.

The suspect, a 45-year-old computer specialist, was described by authorities as a 20-year veteran of the force with an uneventful record. He was born in the French overseas territory of Martinique, had a hearing disability and was a convert to Islam, according to police union officials.

But the timing of the man’s conversion was not entirely clear, and the authorities had previously been careful about characterizing its relevance.

Sibeth Ndiaye, a spokeswoman for the French government, told the broadcaster Franceinfo on Friday that “converting to Islam is not an automatic sign of radicalization” but that “the facts need to be examined with precision.”

The Paris prosecutor’s office said earlier Friday that the suspect’s wife was being questioned by the police, but it declined to comment on reports that she had told investigators that her husband had been erratic and agitated on the night before the attack and had said he was having visions and hearing voices.

French authorities have not officially identified the suspect. But his neighbours in Gonesse, a suburb about 7 miles northeast of Paris, described the man as quiet and otherwise unremarkable, telling the French news media that he sometimes had attended a local mosque.

The suspect was shot dead by an officer after a stabbing spree in the massive building adjacent to Notre Dame Cathedral, in which three men and one woman were killed.

“The police prefecture was struck at its heart, like never before in the past,” Didier Lallement, the Paris police chief, said at a news conference in Paris. “This tragedy is all the more terrible for us that this attack occurred inside the Police Headquarters and was carried out by one of us.”

Lallement denied suggestions that security at Police Headquarters had been lax, adding that any visitors underwent strict security checks, including with metal detectors, and that several areas of the building were restricted to holders of specific badges.

He acknowledged, however, that the security setup had been designed mostly to prevent assailants entering the building, not to foil attacks from within. Entrance checks, for example, are not as strict for police officers and other employees, who are not systematically searched.

Lallement also praised the officer who shot the suspect, a young police officer who had recently finished training and had arrived at headquarters just six days ago.

Hundreds of police employees gathered on Friday to observe a minute of silence in the courtyard of the Police Headquarters, a 19th-century building in the centre of Paris that sits across from Notre-Dame on the Île de la Cité, one of the islands on the Seine.

The outburst of violence Thursday occurred during the same week that some of the largest protests by French police officers in nearly 20 years unfolded. The protesters expressed discontent about working conditions, a record number of suicides and tense relations with the French public plaguing the ranks.

Lallement sought to dispel the notion that the French police were at odds with the general population.

“In these moments, I measure how ridiculous the slogan suggesting that ‘Everybody hates the police’ is,” he said, referring to chants that were sometimes hurled at the police during the Yellow Vest protests this year. “What I saw yesterday was the authorities and lawmakers, but also many citizens, who expressed their support for the police, their love of the police.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service