A man wearing a fake explosives vest and brandishing a butcher’s knife was shot to death by police outside a Paris police station on Thursday, jolting an already anxious French capital with a new dose of fear as the nation grimly marked a year of terror attacks that started with the newsroom massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper.
The assailant — who shouted “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!”— as he waved the knife at officers, was carrying a document with an emblem of the Islamic State group and “an unequivocal claim of responsibility in Arabic,” the prosecutor’s office said.
The extremist group claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7, 2015, attack at Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher grocery store three days later that killed 17 people. The Islamic State group also claimed the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris cafes, restaurants, a sports stadium and a music hall that killed 130 people.
Thursday’s attempted attack shortly before noon in Paris’ multi-ethnic Goutte d’Or neighborhood came almost one year to the minute after two Islamic extremists burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 people. Just moments earlier, President Francois Hollande had paid respects to fallen security forces — three of whom were killed last year in terrorist violence — saluting their valor in protecting “this way of life, the one that terrorists want to attack.”
The fallen were killed “so that we can live free,” Hollande said, describing the November attacks as “acts of war.”
But there was no reprieve for France.
Scores of police descended Thursday on the northern neighbourhood that was the site of the attempted attack, blocking it off to pedestrians and ordering shops to close. Metro stations in the area, which is not far from the Montmartre district that is home to the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, were closed and buses halted, leaving scores of residents, including many elderly, to walk long distances only to find they could not get into their homes.
“It’s like the Charlie Hebdo affair isn’t over,” said Nora Borrias, a 27-year-old waiting for her barricaded street to reopen. She said she no longer feels a sense of safety.
Video shot from a window above the station and provided to The Associated Press showed the suspect’s body lying on the ground in a pool of blood as a sniffer dog was called in to check the body, along with a bomb-detecting robot. More video aired later on iTele TV showed a police explosives specialist cutting open the dead man’s jacket to check for live explosives.
Alexis Mukenge, who witnessed the shooting, told iTele that police shouted, “Stop! Move back!” before firing twice at the man, who immediately fell to the ground.
Authorities did not publicly identify the suspect. However, a French security official said police were “working on the hypothesis” that the assailant is a 20-year-old Moroccan who was involved in a minor 2013 robbery in the southern Var region.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case, said that while the fingerprints of the dead attacker matched those of the robbery suspect, who identified himself at the time as Ali Sallah of Casablanca, the assailant in Thursday’s attack appeared older than 20.
He said Sallah, who had been in France illegally, was ordered to leave the country after the 2013 incident. Investigators were trying to determine if and when the man had returned to Paris.
Earlier, the Paris prosecutor’s anti-terrorism unit said it had opened an investigation into Thursday’s attempted attack. Besides the IS emblem and claim of responsibility in Arabic, a cellphone was also found on the suspect’s body, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. It did not elaborate on the claim of responsibility.
France declared a state of emergency after the November attacks, and thousands of security forces have spread out around the country, concentrating especially on places of worship and other sensitive sites.
Hollande is trying to push through a controversial new measure that calls for anyone with dual nationality convicted of terrorism to lose French citizenship.
Speaking earlier Thursday, Hollande said that what he called a “terrorist threat” would continue to weigh on France. He called for better surveillance of “radicalized” citizens who have joined the Islamic State group or other fighting groups in Syria and Iraq when they return to France.
“We must be able to force these people —and only these people— to fulfil certain obligations and if necessary to put them under house arrest ... because they are dangerous,” he said.
France has faced down terror from numerous quarters over the decades, but its first head-on encounter with the Islamic State group a year ago was a turning point for a fearful Europe. The attacks on the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper, which mocks Islam and all organized religion and uses raw language in its cartoons and articles, had resonance throughout Europe and the world. Leaders flocked to Paris in a solidarity march and “Je Suis Charlie” — I am Charlie — became a global slogan of defiance and unity with France.
US Secretary of State John Kerry noted that solidarity on Thursday. “No country knows better than France that freedom has a price,” Kerry said in a statement. “But what was intended to sow fear and division has, in fact, brought us together.”
A year — and numerous attacks — later Charlie Hebdo, like France itself, lives with a new reality.
“Security is a new expense for the newspaper budget,” Laurent Sourisseau, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo and cartoonist best known as Riss, told France Inter radio. He said the paper had to invest nearly 2 million euros to secure its offices.
Borrias, the Parisian who lives near the police station that came under attack, says she no longer feels safe.
“If we were safe, things like this wouldn’t happen,” she said.