By Madame le Cerf
In “Faits Divers Part One”, I covered the major terrorist attacks which have taken place in France since 2012. I chose an entirely arbitrary definition of “major” – those which had killed more than 5 people.
In 2016 and since then there has also been a series of attacks which have killed fewer people.
On 13th June 2016 two employees of the Interior Ministry were murdered in their home at Magnanville. They were Jean Baptiste Salvaing, a policeman, and his partner, Jessica Schneider, who worked for the police in administration. Larossi Abdalla hid behind the garden gate and stabbed Salvaing as he came home from work. Salvaing managed to get away and alert the neighbours, but the killer followed him and stabbed him to death. He then got into the house and, when the firemen (here the first responders are usually the “pompiers” who deal with medical emergencies and not just fires) arrived he told them that he was holding Salvaing’s partner and their 3-year-old son hostage. He threatened to blow the house up if the security services tried to end the siege. When the security services finally got in, they found the body of Jessica Schneider. Her throat had been cut. The little boy was physically unharmed but traumatised. Abdalla, a French citizen of Moroccan origin, was shot dead by the police. He was a petty criminal who had participated with others in “training sessions” in the parks of Val d’Oise and Seine-St.-Denis. One of their exercises was practising cutting the throats of rabbits! From 2011 he was involved in low grade terrorist activity, had been in prison for terrorist offences and was “Fiché S” (on state security files as a terror threat). In a video put out before the. security services got into the house he pledged allegiance to ISIS and urged other Muslims to commit attacks, threatening by name various well-known people in France. Investigations revealed (as they nearly always do) that, far from being a lone wolf, Abdalla had co-conspirators, including one who was implicated in another attack. This man, Mohammed Aberouz was convicted due mainly to a DNA trace found on the murdered couple’s computer. He denied ever having been involved in the attack or present at the scene of the murders. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a fixed term of 22 years.
ON 26TH July, while France was still reeling from the massacre at Nice 12 days previously, two young jihadis armed with knives went into the church at St. Etienne de Rouvray in Normandy during the morning mass. They cut the throat of the priest Fr. Hamel, 85, seriously wounded one parishioner, M. Coponet, and took another 4, 3 elderly nuns and the elderly wife of M Coponet, hostage. One of the nuns managed to escape and alert the police. Both the assailants, Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, were 19 years old. Kermiche had tried twice to get to Syria and had been sent back to France. Petitjean had tried it once but had only got as far as Istanbul. The police didn’t learn he was back in France until it was too late. Both were Fiché S, an indicator of them being serious security threats. When the police arrived, these heroic young men pushed Mme. Coponet and one of the nuns in front of them as they left the church. They lunged at the police shouting “Allahu Akbar” and were gunned down. Guy Coponet survived despite serious stab wounds to his arms back and throat. The subsequent investigation found flaws in intelligence and procedure. In spite of being Fiché S, Kermiche had been released from prison in March 2016 under the obligations to wear an electronic bracelet and live at his family home. He had thoroughly hoodwinked the judge, pretending to be a reformed character and saying that he had had suicidal thoughts while incarcerated. The prosecution found Kermiche’s protestations unconvincing and appealed -in vain. The conditions of release seem to have been rather lax and he was able to go out for 4 hours every day and an additional 4 at the weekend! It was during one of these permitted excursions that he acted. He announced his intentions on Telegram shortly before acting and urged others to attack churches. His neighbours described him as “a complete nutcase”. The obvious question is “Why was he free?”. The Telegram post was seen by an agent of the National Police, but his superiors failed to examine Kermiche’s file and so didn’t send it to the DGSI (the equivalent of MI5 or the FBI) branch for Normandy. An attempt was made to cover this mistake by falsifying documents. ISIS claimed the attack as the terrorists had pledged allegiance to the “caliph”, Abu Baker al Baghdadi, and diffused a video showing this.
In the evening of 20th April 2017, a man armed with an AK opened fire on a police van parked on the Champs Élysées, killing the driver, Xavier Jugelé, and wounding two other officers and a passer-by before being shot dead by the police. The assailant, Karim Cheurfi, was known to be dangerous because he was obsessed with killing police officers and had already served a prison sentence for attempted murder of police officers. The subsequent investigation found a shotgun and two large knives in his vehicle along with a copy of the Koran and a list of addresses of buildings such as DGSI headquarters and arms depots. Although ISIS claimed that Cheufi was one of their “soldiers”, no direct links were revealed by the investigation though a search of the house where he lived with his mother turned up what was described as “evidence of radicalisation”. Some other people were arrested on suspicion of supplying the AK and 3 of them have been charged with that but do not appear to have gone on trial yet. Justice often moves at a snail’s pace here!
On 1st October 2017 two young women, Mauranne Harel, a 20-year-old medical student, and Laura Paumier (21), a nursing student, were stabbed to death outside the Gare St. Charles in Marseille. The assailant, Ahmed Hanachi, shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he threw himself on the young women, cutting the throat of one and disembowelling the other. Shortly afterwards he tried to attack a soldier who was part of a patrol of Operation Sentinelle and was shot dead. The attack took place in a period of heightened tension in France. There had been a series of terrorist attacks in Europe claimed by ISIS and the trial of Mohamed Merah’s accomplices was due to start the next day. ISIS claimed the attack. The Prime Minister of Tunisia declared that they had no evidence of links between Hanachi and ISIS while the latter was in Tunisia, although his brother, Amir Hanachi, had fought for ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2016. Hanachi was a Tunisian illegal immigrant, known to the police for fraud and theft but not on the anti-terrorist police’s radar despite his jihadi brother. Although ISIS claimed the attack no concrete links were found and the security services speculated that that the claim had been issued to incite other “lone wolves” to act.
In 2018 there were three fatal terrorist attacks. The first was on 23rd March. By that date France was the European country worst affected by terrorist attacks with 245 deaths since the beginning of 2015. There had been 17 failed attacks and 50 plots had been dismantled by the security services before the would-be terrorists could act.
The author of the 23rd March attacks, Radoune Lakdim, was of Moroccan origin but naturalised French. On that morning he stole a car in Carcassone, killing the passenger, Jean Mazières, 60, and seriously injuring Renato Silva, a young Portuguese man, whom he threw out of the car. He claimed he had attacked them because he thought they were gay. He hung about near the Laperrine barracks hoping to be able to attack soldiers but when none appeared he attacked a group of 4 CRS (riot police) who were returning to their barracks after a jog. He fired 6 times and managed to wound one of them badly. He then drove to Trevès 8 km from Carcassonne and parked in the Super U supermarket car park. He went into the shop and killed the butcher, Christian Mederès. All but two of the shoppers fled. Most escaped and some hid in the cold-room. One, Hervé Sosna, was killed by a point-blank shot in the head. Lakdim took the receptionist at the customer service desk hostage and forced her to ring the local police station. He told them he was a member of ISIS and demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the November 2015 commandos. Before the specialist anti-terrorist police, GIGN, could arrive from Toulouse, a group of special intervention gendarmes arrived from Carcasonne. The highest ranking of them, Lieutenant-Colonel Armand Beltrame, suggested that he should take the place of the receptionist as hostage and the exchange took place. The gendarmes managed to evacuate the last remaining shoppers. When the GIGN arrived Lakdim asked for a mobile phone charger and negotiations began using Beltrame’s mobile and Lakdim again demanded the release of Abdeslam. The GIGN negotiator replied that he did not have the power to grant that and told Lakdim that his mother had arrived. Beltrame was heard shouting that he was being attacked. When the GIGN went in they shot Lakdim dead as he shouted “Allahu Akbar” and found Beltrame riddled with bullets and with his throat cut. He died in hospital that night. He was given a state funeral and buried alongside other heroes of France in Les Invalides.
It emerged in the subsequent investigation that Lakdim was one of the usual suspects- background of petty criminality followed by radicalisation. Though Fiché S in 2014 he was regarded as “small fry”” and surveillance was stopped in 2017. Several people were arrested in connection with the attack. Their trials are due to start later this month.
In the evening of 12th May 2018, a man mounted knife attacks on passers by in Rue Marsollier and Rue Monsigny in the 2nd Arrondissement in Paris. Shouting “Allahu Akbar” he killed Ronan Gosnet, 29 and wounded 4 others, 2 of them seriously. The assailant, Khamzat Azimov, was shot dead by the police. He was originally from Chechnya but had been naturalised French at the same time as his mother in 2010. He was Fiché S in summer 2016, mainly because of his associations with suspected jihadis and later released a video in which he proclaimed allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS quickly claimed the attack. In October 2023 Azimov’s best friend, Abdul Hakim Anaiev, was jailed for 10 years for complicity in the attack.
The final fatal attack of 2018 took place at the Strasbourg Christmas market on 11th December. The jihadi, Chérif Chekatt, opened fire in the neighbouring streets, killing 3 people and wounding 11 others. On the morning of the 11th police went to Chekatt’s home to arrest him for attempted murder and extorsion; (he had a rap sheet as long as your arm). He wasn’t there but an armoury consisting of guns, a grenade and various knives was found. After his killing spree Chekatt exchanged fire with 4 soldiers from Operation Sentinelle and was wounded in the arm. He hijacked a taxi and managed to flee. The taxi driver was freed and said that Chekatt had told him that he had killed people for “our brothers in Syria”. Two of the wounded died bring the death toll to 5. Chekatt was killed by the police after more than 48 hours on the run Minutes after Chekatt”s death ISIS claimed the attack. The Minister of the Interior, Castaner, dismissed the claim as not believable and “totally opportunistic”. However, 10 days later a video dated in November was found on a USB key belonging to Chekatt in which he pledged allegiance to ISIS. Chekatt had been Fiché S in May 2016 and his father said he had adhered to the ideology of the so-called Islamic State.
In researching this series of attacks (and those which took place between 2019 and 2023) it emerges that the profiles of the perpetrators are remarkably similar. Many came from large families where the father is permanently or intermittently absent and the mother has been unable to impose any discipline on her sons. Most are “petits malfrats” (petty criminals) who start off at a young age stealing mopeds, motorbikes and cars, graduate to involvement in the drugs trade and then move into violent crime. Cherfi, for example, was a petty criminal who accidentally crashed a stolen car into a vehicle carrying trainee police officers. He tried to get away shooting at the trainee and his brother, who was also in the car and seriously wounded both of them. He was then arrested and, while being questioned snatched an officer’s gun and shot him five times. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to no more than 20 years imprisonment (reduced to 15 on appeal). He served only 11 years before he was back on the streets to carry on his criminal career. Another short spell in jail followed. Some time between the end of this term and 2016 he came under suspicion of radicalisation. An informant reported that he was keen to attack policemen as revenge for Muslims killed in Syria. He was suspected of issuing on-line death threats against police officers and trying to procure arms. A search of his home found hunting knives, plastic cable ties, masks and a GoPro type camera but none of this was considered sufficient evidence of an intention to carry out an attack!
This progression from petty criminal to violent criminal to jihadi is very typical of French (and Belgian) jihadis. Do they become radicalised in prison? Most of them seem to have had little interest in religion during their careers as petty criminals until they suddenly start to practise Islam rigorously. Are they trying to make amends for previously “sinful” lives by dying on the path of jihad?
Another motif which often appears in the stories of these jihadis is that they are known to the police, and most are Fiché S for radicalisation. The problem is that there are about 10,000 Fiché S in France at any one time and it is simply impossible to keep track of all of them. It is up to the prosecutors to decide whether to bring charges and to “ juges des libertés et peines” to decide whether the criminal should go back to prison when they breech the terms of their parole. These judges are often lax, leaving radicalised violent criminals at liberty to go on and carry out murderous attacks. Cherfi, for instance, had left France in 2017 to go to Algeria to get married. The terms of his parole forbade him to leave France and the judge should have ordered him back to prison. He failed to do so and so left Cherfi to pursue his ambition to kill police officers. Similarly the judge in the Kermiche case ignored the advice of the prosecution that Kermiche should not be freed allowing him to partake in the attack at St Etienne de Rouvray. To be scrupulously fair it has to be admitted that the prisons here are overflowing and the judges who deal with freeing people who are eligible for parole or simply on remand are probably under political pressure to free up places for the newly convicted.