Questions remain over Champs-Élysées attacker’s links to IS group
Two days after an attack on Paris's Champs-Élysées that left one police officer dead, questions remain about the shooter, his ties to terrorism, and whether he had accomplices.
The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility about two hours after the attack, which took place on Paris’s Champs-Élysées avenue. A statement published by the terrorist group’s progaganda agency identified the attacker as “Abu Yussef the Belgian”.
However, French authorities on Friday identified the attacker, who was killed in the assault, as Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old French citizen who lived in the suburbs of Paris and was known to French authorities.
The discrepancy in the reports led to speculation about who really carried out the attack. Was there a second attacker? If so, were they on the loose?
No second attacker is known
Rumours had spread on Twitter Thursday night that a Belgian man named Youssouf el Osri, who was wanted by Belgian authorities, had travelled on a Thalys train to Paris. Some Twitter users implied that he was linked to the Champs-Élysées attack. Was this the “Yussef the Belgian” that the IS group later referred to?
El Osri gave himself up at a police station in Antwerp, Belgium, Friday morning. The Belgian public prosecutor said that on Thursday evening el Osri had been in Belgium -- not in Paris -- and “ruled out” any link between him and the Champs-Élysées attack.
The Belgian prosecutor offered two theories. Either “there really is an ‘Abu Yussef the Belgian’ – and we are trying to identify who this is – or the IS group took advantage of the fact that the man from Antwerp was already in the news, especially in France, in order to name him when they claimed responsibility for the attack”.
Or did the IS group make a mistake? Their claim of responsibility was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the Islamist group rarely names attackers, instead referring to them as “soldiers of IS”. Secondly, the speed with which they put out their statement was also unusual. The IS group more typically claims responsibility 12 to 48 hours after an attack.
Radicalised or not?
Did Karim Cheurfi have any other links to radical Islam? Cheurfi comes from Seine-Saint-Denis, to the northeast of Paris, and last lived in Chelles, a suburb 18 kilometres east of Paris.
He spent 14 years in prison on three counts of attempted murder, including of police officers, but “didn’t show any signs of radicalisation or proselytising”, according to Paris Prosecutor François Molins.
Reuters reported Thursday night that Cheurfi was on France's official Fiche S watch list of those being monitored by security services, but this turned out to be false.
Cheurfi’s neighbours said that he nourished a “hatred” of the police, and that he was “suffering psychologically”. French anti-terrorism researchers knew as early as the beginning of 2016 that Cheurfi was trying to buy weapons, and that he wanted to kill police in revenge for children killed in Syria.
However, Cheurfi’s name did appear on a list of some 15,000 “radicalised” people, kept by France’s domestic intelligence agency (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure or DGSI).
The other link between Cheurfi and the IS group is a handwritten note praising the terrorist group found next to Cheurfi’s body after he was killed by the police. But the IS group has encouraged would-be attackers to leave such notes to enable the group to claim responsibility.
Three men close to Cheurfi who are currently being held by police for questioning may provide more answers. One of the men met Cheurfi in prison and has an extensive criminal record.
This article was translated from the original in French.