French beheading: suspect was on watch-list from 2006 to 2008

Neighbours near Lyons describe Yassin Salhi (35) as a quiet, discreet man

Police lead away an unidentified woman as they search Yassin Salhi’s home in Saint-Priest, near Lyon. Photograph: Richard Mouillaud/EPA

Police lead away an unidentified woman as they search Yassin Salhi’s home in Saint-Priest, near Lyon. Photograph: Richard Mouillaud/EPA

 

France suffered its first Islamist attack in five months yesterday when Yassin Salhi (35) murdered and decapitated his 54-year-old boss and attempted to blow up a gas factory at Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near Lyon-Saint-Exupéry airport.

It is not clear whether Salhi acted under orders from an Islamist group abroad. The fact that he murdered the man who had employed him since March may indicate it was a copycat crime, rooted in personal grievance. He was overwhelmed by a fireman at the factory and initially refused to divulge his identity. His wife, sister, and a possible accomplice were also detained.

The Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said Salhi, a delivery man, was allowed by security guards to enter the compound of the US-owned gas company Air Products because he often called there and was known to employees.

Salhi had figured on the DGSE intelligence agency’s watch-list of radicalised Muslims from 2006 until 2008. Mr Molins said Salhi’s association with the Salafist milieu in the Lyon region was noticed from 2011 until 2014.

Neighbours in the Lyon suburb of Saint-Priest said Salhi was a quiet, discreet man whose three children played with their own.

As recounted by Molins, Salhi entered the compound “without drawing attention” at 9.28am. For the next seven minutes, he was outside the range of security cameras. At 9.35am, the camera shows him driving the van at high speed towards a covered warehouse containing gas canisters. There was an explosion on impact. Part of the warehouse was destroyed, and the roof was blown off. Staff called the fire department at 9.37am. Firemen arrived four minutes later.

Courageous

Bernard Cazeneuve

The factory is a few hundred metres from the airport flight path. Some workers in the industrial zone mistook the explosion for a jet engine backfiring.

After Salhi was apprehended, firemen found the headless body of the owner of the delivery company, and a knife on the ground nearby. Salhi had stuck the severed head on a fence post, wreathed by black and white flags bearing the Muslim shuhada, or profession of faith, in Arabic – the flag of Islamic State. Such flags can be purchased on the internet.

It is not clear whether Salhi killed and beheaded his boss before arriving at the factory, or once inside the compound. Prosecutor Molins said forensic examinations will tell whether the transport company owner was alive when he was decapitated. President François Hollande said “a decapitated corpse with inscriptions” was found on the scene. French media reported that the corpse was covered with Arabic writing, strengthening the theory that the killing occurred elsewhere.

“We must express solidarity for the victim,” Mr Hollande said on leaving the EU summit in Brussels to return to Paris. “The European Council has expressed solidarity to me this morning. Everyone remembers what happened in our country, and not only in our country.”

January attacks

Just as France seemed to be returning to normal, yesterday’s murder and attempted destruction of a factory were a grim reminder that, as Mr Hollande said after chairing a defence council meeting at the Elysée Palace, “terrorism is our adversary, our enemy – it strikes everywhere”.

Prime minister Manuel Valls cut short an official visit to South America.

“We must not lower our guard,” he said. “France is a strong nation and she will never give in to fear. We are engaged in a long-term struggle.”

Mr Hollande asked his compatriots to remain calm.

“There must be no doubt about our country’s capacity to protect itself,” he said.

The Vigipirate national security alert system has been raised to its highest level in the Rhone-Alpes region for three days. Mr Cazeneuve said that the government’s “determination to provide a high level of protection for the French” had led it to create 1,500 new anti-terrorist jobs and budget an extra €233 million for intelligence services since January.

The attack marked the first beheading on French territory, though a French mountain guide was decapitated by al-Qaeda last year in Algeria.

Muslim extremists beheaded the British soldier Lee Rigby in a London street in 2013.

The grisly method of murder has been a signature of jihadists since al-Qaeda filmed the mutilation and murder of the US journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. Islamic State has decapitated between 50 and 80 people in the past year, according to Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World.