Paris jolted yet again by attempted attack
Man with knife killed after trying to attack police station on ‘Charlie Hebdo’ anniversary
Paris was jolted yet again on Thursday morning as a man in a dark coat brandishing a butcher’s cleaver and crying “Allahu Akbar” approached a police commissariat near the Barbès metro station in the 18th district, as president François Hollande delivered a speech to security forces at the Préfecture de Police.
Each in his way, both men marked the anniversary of the three-day rampage that started at Charlie Hebdo magazine exactly a year earlier, almost to the minute.
In that attack jihadist gunmen killed 17 people in 72 hours. The nightmare was renewed and amplified with the slaughter of 130 more people on November 13th.
Paris seemed to hold its breath and wait for the date to pass, in a state of muted, numb emotion, somewhere between dread and sorrow. At nightfall, residents of the capital lit candles and laid flowers at the foot of the statue on the Place de la République, in memory of the victims.
At 11.30am, two policemen standing outside the commissariat shot dead the assailant, who was later identified as a Moroccan citizen. Wires protruded from a plastic pouch under his coat, so a robot was used to test the corpse for explosives. It was a phoney suicide belt.
A paper found on the dead man bore the flag of Islamic State and stated his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State – also known as Isis. He was, he said, avenging people killed in Syria.
Like the Frenchman (29) of Tunisian origin who tried to run over four soldiers by a mosque in Valence on January 2nd, the man with the cleaver appears to have been a deranged “lone wolf” inspired by Islamic State propaganda. “To run towards armed policemen wearing bullet-proof vests with a fake explosives belt appears completely nutty, even suicidal,” a policeman told Le Figaro.
Meanwhile, Hollande said the three police killed by jihadis a year ago “died so we could live free”. In his new year’s wishes to French security forces, Hollande contrasted their heroism with the jihadis’ barbarity.
Not once did Hollande mention Charlie Hebdo. His speech resembled an accountant’s ledger more than blood, sweat and tears: 200 wannabe jihadis were stopped from departing for Syria; 50 foreigners barred from entering France. Searches carried out under the state of emergency had brought to light 25 offences “directly linked to terrorism” and yielded 400 weapons.
Hollande compared himself – favourably – with his predecessor and would-be successor Nicolas Sarkozy. He had created 9,000 new jobs in the security services and would create another 5,000 before leaving office. Sarkozy did away with 12,000 positions.
At the end of his 25-minute speech, Hollande acknowledged that “the year that has just passed: a terrible year, a tragic year” had marked and shaken France. “But this tragedy, this drama, these trials have made us more determined to defend our country and the ideal it embodies,” he said.
As revealed by the investigation, the November 13th attackers were in constant contact with two mobile telephone numbers at the same location near Brussels. According to La Libre Belgique newspaper, Belgian authorities believe two men with false Belgian identity papers under the names Samir Bouzid and Soufiane Kayal directed the attacks.
Neither the true identities of Bouzid and Kayal, nor their nationalities, are known, though they may be Iraqi or Syrian. In video-surveillance photos of the two men crossing the border between Austria and Hungary on September 9th, they appear to be substantially older than the jihadis in their 20s who carried out the Paris massacres. They travelled with Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving attacker, who is still at large.
Intelligence services cited by Le Figaro fear that Bouzid, Kaylal and Abdeslam may be plotting further attacks in Europe. They speak of an “armed wing” of Islamic State in Europe, believed to be run by one of Saddam Hussein’s former intelligence officers, called Abu Ali al-Anbari.
Al-Anbari is allegedly running Islamic State’s European operations from Libya, and has assigned a half dozen “emirs” to organise attacks. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian citizen killed in a police raid five days after the November 13th attacks, is believed to have been the emir in charge of France and Spain.
In another reminder of last year’s bloodshed, the Paris criminal court on Thursday sentenced in absentia the French jihadi Salim Benghalem to 15 years in prison for helping people from the Paris region join the jihad in Syria. Benghalem (35) has been reported killed in western air strikes in Syria several times. In a February 2015 video he expressed joy at the Charlie Hebdo massacre and exhorted French Muslims to attack their compatriots.