Man Who Killed Three in French Church Identified as Tunisian National

French authorities arrest second suspect, amid ongoing worldwide tensions over depictions of prophet Mohammed

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A soldier patrols outside Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, October 29, 2020
A soldier patrols outside Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, October 29, 2020Credit: Eric Gaillard,AP

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor says the man who killed three in a Nice church was a Tunisian aged about 20 who entered France from Italy, and was carrying a copy of Islam's holy book, the Quran, on him at the time of the attack.

Jean-Francois Ricard told a press conference late Thursday that the man, alter identified as Ibrahim Issaoui, arrived in Italy by reaching the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on September 20, and traveled to Paris on October 9.

The travel information came from a document on the man from the Italian Red Cross, Ricard said. The attacker was seriously wounded by police and is being treated in a hospital.

People light candles outside the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020.Credit: VALERY HACHE - AFP

On Friday, French authorities arrested a new suspect, a 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the attacker the night before the attack, according to a judicial official. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

In an interview broadcast Friday with Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, the attacker's mother said she was shocked by the events.

From the Tunisian province of Sfax, the mother, her eyes wet with tears, said she was surprised to hear her son was in France when he called upon his arrival and had no idea what he was planning. “You don’t know the French language, you don’t know anyone there, you’re going to live alone there, why, why did you go there?” she said she told him over the phone at the time.

His brother told Al-Arabiya that Issaoui had informed the family he would sleep in front of the church, and sent them a photograph showing him at the cathedral where the attack took place. “He didn’t tell me anything,” he said. A neighbor said he knew the assailant when he was a mechanic and held various other odd jobs, and had shown no signs of radicalization.

Tunisians fleeing a virus-battered economy make up the largest contingent of migrants landing in Italy this year. Italian media reported that from Lampedusa, where Issaoui was one of 1,300 arriving migrants on Sept. 20, he was placed with 800 others on a virus quarantine boat in Puglia.

The League leader Matteo Salvini holds a placard reading in Italian "Stop Islamic terror" during a demonstration of solidarity in front of the French embassy in Rome, October 29, 2020. Credit: Cecilia Fabiano,AP

Rekindled furor over cartoons

The attack is the third in two months that authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher. It prompted the government to raise its security alert status to the maximum level hours before a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

It comes during a growing furor over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that were republished in recent months by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo — renewing vociferous debate in France and the Muslim world over the depictions that Muslims consider offensive but are protected by French free speech laws.

Ricard detailed the gruesome scene encountered inside the Nice basilica where a man and woman were killed by the attacker. A 60-year-old woman whose body was found at the entry of the church, suffered “a very deep throat slitting, like a decapitation,” Ricard said.

The other victims included 55-year-old Vincent Loques, a father of two who was the church's sacristan, in charge of its holy objects, according to local broadcaster France-Bleu. Another was a 44-year-old mother of three from Brazil named Simone who had studied cooking in Nice and helped poor communities, France-Bleu reported. She had originally managed to flee, but died at a nearby restaurant.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) speaks to the press outside the the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020Credit: ERIC GAILLARD - AFP

An investigation was opened for murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, a common term for such crimes. The prosecutor said the attacker, who was born in 1999, was not on the radar of intelligence agencies as a potential threat.

A Muslim holy book and two telephones were among the things found on the attacker. Also found was the knife used to kill, with a 17-centimeter blade, Ricard said. A bag with his personal affairs also was found containing two unused knives.

Italian media reported Thursday, without naming sources, that the suspect arrived in Lampedusa in September, spent 2 weeks on a quarantine ship in Bari and then received a notice of expulsion and slipped away and over the border to France.

Tunisia also opened an investigation into the suspected attacker, according to Mohsen Dali, an official in a specialised Tunisian court that counters militancy.

Increased security

The French consulate in the Saudi city of Jeddah was also targeted Thursday, a man claiming allegiance to an anti-immigrant group was shot and killed by police in the southern French city of Avignon, and scattered confrontations were reported elsewhere, but it is unclear whether they were linked to the attack in Nice.

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation, and President Emmanuel Macron said he would immediately increase the number of soldiers deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 currently to 7,000.

France's national police chief had already ordered increased security at churches and mosques earlier this week, but no police appeared to be guarding the Notre Dame Basilica when it was attacked. It is less than a half-mile (less than a kilometer) from the site in 2016 where another attacker plowed a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing dozens of people. Associated Press reporters saw no visible security forces at multiple prominent religious sites in Paris on Thursday. There have been several attacks in French churches by extremists in recent years, and Thursday's killings come ahead of the Roman Catholic All Saints' holiday.

French forensics officers operate outside the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020.Credit: ERIC GAILLARD - AFP

Thursday's attacker was believed to be acting alone, and police are not searching for other assailants, said two police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named.

“He cried ‘Allahu Akbar!’ over and over, even after he was injured,” said Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who confirmed a woman and a man died inside the church, while a second woman fled to a nearby bar but was mortally wounded. “The meaning of his gesture left no doubt.”

Shots punctuated the air and witnesses screamed as police stationed at the grandiose doors to the church appeared to fire at the attacker inside, according to videos obtained by The Associated Press. For a time after the attack, explosions could be heard as sappers detonated suspicious objects.

Worldwide condemnations

Earlier, the lower house of parliament suspended a debate on France’s new virus restrictions and held a moment of silence for the victims. Castex rushed from the hall to a crisis center overseeing the aftermath of the Nice attack and later returned to announce the alert level increase. Macron left for Nice almost immediately.

“Very clearly, it is France which is under attack,” Macron said as he stood before the church. He added that all of France offered its support to Catholics "so that their religion can be exercised freely in our country. So that every religion can be practiced. ”

Devout Muslims pray for the victims of a knife attack inside a church in Nice, at the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica in the nearby city of Marseille, October 29,2020.Credit: CHRISTOPHE SIMON - AFP

While many groups and nations have been angered or frustrated by France's position on the cartoons, most issued condolences Thursday, including Iran and Pakistan, as did France's traditional allies.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith condemned the Nice attack and called on French Muslims to refrain from festivities marking the birth of Mohammed “as a sign of mourning and in solidarity with the families of victims and the Catholics of France.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the attack. "We stand in solidarity with the people of France against terror and violence,” the statement said.

Relations between Turkey and France hit a new low recently after Turkey’s president accused Macron of Islamophobia over the caricatures and questioned his mental health, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations.

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