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Paris knife attacker's colleagues spotted 'signs of radicalisation' in 2015, internal report says

Bertrand Guay, AFP | French soldiers stand guard near Paris police headquarters on October 3, 2019, after four officers were killed in a knife attack.

An internal report on the man who killed four police colleagues in Paris last week says the 45-year-old computer expert, who was hearing disabled and had converted to Islam, showed signs of radicalising in 2015 but “no problem” since.

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Mickaël Harpon was shot dead after stabbing four people to death with a 33-centimetre kitchen knife and an oyster knife during the lunchtime attack at his workplace on the French capital’s Île de la Cité on Thursday. He had been employed at Paris police headquarters since 2003.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner acknowledged on Sunday that officials should have kept a closer eye on him after investigators found evidence Harpon had supported an extreme version of Islam.

“Obviously, there were failings,” Castaner told TF1 television, but he dismissed calls from some right-wing opponents for him to resign.

‘Signs of radicalisation’

A four-page police prefecture report published Sunday by France Inter radio says “several” of Harpon’s colleagues “revealed having noticed in the past … signs of radicalisation”. They “alerted their superiors" or sought advice from colleagues "specialised in such matters” as a result.

In the report, Françoise Bilancini, who heads the Paris Police Prefecture’s Intelligence Directorate (DRPP), writes that those items of information only came to her attention “in the course of informal discussions” after Thursday’s deadly attack.

The document says Harpon expressed support for the terrorist attack that killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, saying the satirical magazine’s cartoonists “had it coming”.

The remarks, as well as changes colleagues observed in Harpon’s behaviour towards women, were the subject of an informal discussion in July 2015 between two police officer colleagues and a police major charged with fielding reports on radicalisation. The major was told about the fact that Harpon had married a Muslim woman, had converted to Islam, and had stopped shaking hands with or embracing women. But the officers declined to file a formal report.

Later that summer, the officers’ superior, a police commander, went to see the major, telling him and another officer “that there is no issue with Mr. Harpon and that [the commander] was dealing with things at his level”.

‘Nothing to worry about’

The report published Sunday says the major and the second officer said no one contacted them about Harpon after the autumn of 2015. The major said he regularly checked in with two of Harpon’s colleagues and his boss about the employee’s behaviour and was always told “there is nothing to worry about with Mr. Harpon”. The two officer colleagues said they detected nothing “suspicious” in Harpon’s attitude and that he showed “no animosity towards women”.

The report says it was known that Harpon had been the subject of legal proceedings in 2008 over an allegation of domestic violence against his future wife causing injuries that kept her out of work for eight days or more, but that the woman later withdrew the complaint and that a court in 2010 declined to levy any punishment against Harpon.

Bilancini notes that the management knew Harpon through his computer system maintenance work and had no complaints.

Harpon’s work was appreciated, the report says. He was seriously hearing impaired and his handicap was worsening with age, and he had expressed some frustration in February of this year over his disability, concerned that it was hampering his career prospects. In response, he was advised to pursue training courses, which he applied to do, but did not receive all of the training he requested due to space limitations on certain courses.

“If a particular problem with Mr. Harpon’s behaviour had presented itself after 2015, I have no doubt that it would easily have come to the knowledge of management to take into account. There was nothing of the sort,” Bilancini writes.

Harpon’s 38-year-old wife was taken into custody on Thursday after officials found the couple had exchanged 33 text messages shortly before the attack, ending the conversation with “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”).

A police source said she was released without charge on Sunday evening.

Minister under fire

Castaner has come under fire after initially claiming that Harpon had never given the “slightest reason for alarm” ahead of Thursday’s attack.

Investigators later revealed that Harpon had in fact been in contact with adherents of Salafism, the ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam.

Harpon had defended “atrocities committed in the name of that religion”, anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said Saturday.

On Sunday, Castaner noted that none of Harpon’s colleagues had wanted to file an official complaint over their suspicions he had been radicalizing.

“Apparently they decided not to make a report,” Castaner said. “The failure occurred at this moment.

“There was nothing in his personnel file that indicated he might be radicalised... If there had been a sign, maybe we could have avoided this,” he said.

The minister will face questioning by parliament’s intelligence commission Tuesday over the attack, its president, Christian Cambon, said Sunday.

“We’re going to try to find out what these failings were,” Cambon told AFP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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