France 'lone wolf' attacker adopts Islamist groups' orders

AFP , Saturday 27 Jun 2015

French Police
A French special police forces officer gestures as police escort a woman from a residential building during a raid in Saint-Priest, near Lyon, France, June 26, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

By acting alone and employing the shock tactic of decapitation, the suspect in France's latest attack appeared to be following to the letter the gruesome orders of Islamist groups.

Last year, the spokesman of the Islamic State extremist group urged followers to "kill a disbelieving American or European -- especially the spiteful and filthy French" by any means that came to hand.

"Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him," said Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the group's spokesman.

While no group has claimed responsibility for Friday's attack, there were nonetheless chilling echoes of Adnani's exhortations.

The suspect, 35-year-old father-of-three Yassin Salhi, allegedly severed his boss's head and attached it to a fence before driving headlong into a gas factory in an apparent bid to blow it and himself sky high.

Nearby Salhi's almost destroyed vehicle, authorities found a knife, suggesting the suspect may have taken to heart Adnani's message to use whatever is available to sow terror.

"We've gone from the hyper-terrorism of September 11 to a form of micro-terrorism," Alain Bauer, criminologist and author of a book on terrorism, told AFP.

"These are mini-attacks carried out by one or two operatives, with their knife, their car, their bottle of gas. They are less structured, less professional and can therefore carry out more little attacks," added Bauer.

"But the effect is the same whether there is one victim or 3,000," concluded the expert.

The apparently solo nature of the attack -- authorities have said there is no reason to believe Salhi had accomplices during the operation -- also highlights the problems security forces face in tracking people like Salhi.

Like the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly -- who carried out January's Charlie Hebdo attacks that killed 17 -- or Mohamed Merah who killed seven people in Toulouse in 2012, Salhi was known to the French intelligence services.

In 2006, authorities drew up a file on him because he was suspected of links with the radical Salafist movement but the file was shelved in 2008.

However, he did not completely disappear from the radar screen and raised alarm bells periodically between 2011 and 2014, again for involvement with Salafist groups.

"This means that the (security) services are doing their job and basically doing it well," said one official who declined to be named.

"When we have an alarm bell that rings, we work on it. But if afterwards there's nothing, it's logical at some point to drop it," explained this official.

Nothing suggested Salhi was capable of mounting such a grisly attack, stressed one police official.

"The real problems are these 'sleeping' people. It's practically impossible to weed them out. When you decide that someone isn't worth following any more, it's not some random decision," said this source.

Authorities point to the five foiled attacks since the beginning of the year -- revealed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls in April -- as evidence the security and information services are functioning as they should.

Others point to the lack of resources.

"We don't have the people to follow everyone. We've been saying this for ages," snapped one Paris-based police official.

With the highest Muslim population in Europe and a high proportion of people who have gone abroad to wage jihad, France is in an especially delicate position.

However, "as this recent event has shown, it's not just them (foreign fighters) you have to follow. This suspect hadn't come back from Iraq" as far as is known, said one high-ranking official.

"In any case, intelligence can't stop such a thing happening. Even if you put four police officers on everyone you thought capable of committing such an act," fumed the Paris official.

"Which itself is impossible." 

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