Marseille knife attacker was not on French anti-terror list

Bertrand Langlois, AFP | French police officers work outside Saint-Charles train station in Marseille on October 1, 2017, after a suspected Islamist knifeman killed two women before being shot by soldiers patrolling the area.

A man who fatally stabbed two women outside Marseille's main train station had been detained for shoplifting and released the day before the attack but was not on France's anti-terror watch list, officials said Monday.


The suspect was not on a watch list but he had used seven different aliases in previous encounters with police, Paris Prosecutor François Molins told reporters on Monday.

French authorities are studying the suspect's cellphone and working to determine his true identity as well as whether he has links to the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for Sunday's stabbing.

The assailant was killed by soldiers immediately after the attack. He was identified by his fingerprints, which matched those taken during previous encounters with police since 2005, Molins said.

But Molins noted the attacker didn't have any past convictions in France. He did not elaborate on the nature of the previous police incidents but said the man's most recent arrest occurred in the Lyon area on Friday just two days before the train station stabbing. The man was held overnight for shoplifting and then released the next day without charge, Molins said.

The suspect told Lyon authorities that he did odd jobs, used hard drugs and was divorced.

The prosecutor said local authorities had no reason to keep him in detention based on the ID he gave them at the time, a Tunisian passport.

Terror investigation

Molins said it was not clear if the attacker had any connection to the victims, two cousins who were meeting for a birthday celebration. Officials said they were aged 20 and 21.

Some witnesses reported hearing the assailant shout "Allahu akbar!" Arabic for "God is great" and Molins said that is one of the reasons prosecutors opened a terrorism investigation.

He said video surveillance of the site showed the man arrived at the station in the early afternoon and sat for a few minutes on a bench outside. He then suddenly jumped up and stabbed one woman several times, then ran away, then came back and attacked the second woman.

A female passerby "bravely attempted to intervene", Molins said. The man then tried to attack soldiers patrolling the site but was shot dead.

The suspect was found with two knives and a telephone but no identity papers, according to Molins.

The man's multiple pseudonyms made it difficult to identify a residence to search for more clues, Yves Lefebvre of the Unite SGP Police union told The Associated Press.

"While it may shock the public, unfortunately it doesn't shock us, the police" that the suspect was released the day before carrying out a deadly attack, Lefebvre said.

"Nothing caused us to suspect there was a threat of radicalisation during the [Lyon] arrest," he added.  

IS group link?

The IS group has claimed the attack via its Amaq news agency, saying the assailant was acting in response to its calls to target countries that are part of the US-led coalition fighting jihadist militants in Syria and Iraq.

The Amaq statement didn't provide evidence of a direct link to the attacker and it is unclear if the claim was merely opportunistic.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to the investigation told AFP on Monday that no link had been established so far between the assailant and the terrorist organisation.

France has been under a state of emergency following a spate of attacks by Islamist militants over the last few years, including coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015 that killed almost 130 people. Other countries – including Britain, Germany and Belgium – have also been targeted in attacks using knives, guns, explosives and vehicles.

Security forces have also increasingly been targeted by militants, most notably in June 2016 when a Frenchman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group stabbed a police commander to death outside his home and killed his partner.

French lawmakers are due to vote on a much-criticised anti-terrorism law on Tuesday, which would enshrine some state-of-emergency powers into law and could reduce the number of military personnel deployed on the ground.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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