PARIS — In a video released by the Islamic State group and recorded in the suburban Paris home of his victims, a former jihadi recruiter confessed to killing a police officer and his partner and listed other prominent people he planned to target.
The attack late Monday touched already raw nerves. It recalled elements of the Orlando killings days earlier, and revived French concerns about the IS threat after the group targeted Paris in November, killing 130 people. A state of emergency is still in place, and 90,000 security forces are now deployed to protect the European Championship soccer tournament taking place across France.
On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande urged heightened vigilance after what he said was “incontestably a terrorist act.”
The video reflects a pattern within IS of individuals pledging allegiance and then staging attacks that the extremist group calls its own — and the violence shows the group’s continued ability to attract followers despite being under attack in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
It was as surprising as it was bloody.
The suspect, Larossi Abballa, a 25-year-old Frenchman once convicted of jihadi recruitment for Pakistan, staked out off-duty police commander Jean-Baptiste Savaing and stabbed him in front of his house in the suburb of Magnanville, about 35 miles (55 kilometres) west of Paris, according to police.
Abballa then entered Savaing’s house and stabbed his partner, a 36-year-old police administrator in the gunman’s hometown, then took their 3-year-old son hostage, Prosecutor Francois Molins said. For about three hours, police surrounded the building as Abballa first made demands — and then apparently made the video.
About an hour after the video was posted on Facebook, police stormed the house, killing Abballa and rescuing the child, Molins told reporters.
Abballa’s Facebook page was taken down, but the Islamic State group’s Amaq news agency later released the video, which appears to have been filmed inside the couple’s home.
“I just killed a police officer and his wife,” he says, adding: “The police are currently surrounding me.” He then listed other planned targets, including rappers, journalists, police officers and police officials.
Unusually, the video was edited. The victims do not appear.
The timing may not have been coincidental: The killings came after IS urged supporters to act in Europe or America during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is currently under way.
Abballa made the declaration of allegiance to Islamic State in response to IS calls to “kill non-believers where they live,” and with their families, Molins said.
Salvaing, 42, was a police commander in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux his partner has not been identified. Authorities have not said whether there was any link between Abballa and the victims.
The main question for anti-terrorism investigators now is whether Abballa had accomplices or was part of a larger network. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said late Tuesday on France 2 TV that it appeared at this early stage “most probable” that Abballa acted alone, though that must be confirmed by the investigation.
Earlier in the day, three people –ages 27, 29 and 44 — were detained in the investigation, Molins said. Two had been convicted with Abballa in 2013 for involvement in a network recruiting for jihad in Pakistan, a French official said.
Hollande said after an emergency security meeting Tuesday that France faces a threat “of a very large scale,” then added: “France is not the only country concerned (by the terrorist threat), as we have seen, again, in the United States, in Orlando.”
Abballa was from the western Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, and lived in a well-kept, working class neighbourhood where shaken residents described puzzlement at the attack.
Police raided the apartment building where he lived with his parents and a sister, according to a young resident who did not want to be identified. Later police raided another building in a nearby housing project, surrounding it and searching for several hours.
Another neighbour, Henriette Yenge, said she would say hello to Abballa when he went to the mosque around the corner.
“He was a neighbourhood kid,” she told The Associated Press. “I was surprised it was him. It’s sad to see things like that.”
Hours before the killing, Abballa went to his neighbourhood mosque and prayed so long that mosque employees had to make him leave. Rector Mohamed Droussi said Abballa was reading the Qur’an for hours and was the last to leave. “I took the key and I said, ‘we are closing,”‘ Droussi said.
Droussi said he is concerned about radicalization, and the mosque often addresses the issue, to urge “the youth to stay on the right path.”
A Facebook profile bearing the name Larossi Abballa — which vanished from the internet early Tuesday — showed a photo of a smiling, bearded young man. Two recent posts featured videos critical of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The last publicly available post was a mock-up of the European Championship logo, highlighting what it said were masonic and occult symbols.
“Some will say we see evil everywhere!” Abballa said in a message posted about 18 hours before the attack.
Facebook declined to discuss the episode except to say in a brief statement: “We are working closely with the French authorities as they deal with this terrible crime. Terrorists and acts of terrorism have no place on Facebook. Whenever terrorist content is reported we remove it as quickly as possible. We treat take-down requests by law enforcement with the highest urgency.”
The social networking company has previously said it doesn’t automatically screen material that’s posted on its site, but it provides ways for users to report content they believe is in violation of the site’s rules. Facebook rules forbid posts by terrorist groups or that support terrorist groups or violence, or that “celebrate” crimes.
IS has deftly used social media and gotten around rules to spread its violent message, however. Such online videos of bloodshed have been a marker of past attacks in France, from Mohamed Merah’s attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 to Amedy Coulibaly’s attack on a kosher market last year.
“ISIS has codified these lone-wolf attacks, one of the codes being that attackers must publicly pledge allegiance to the caliph,”‘ said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst with the Levantine Group.
France, like other countries in Europe, has seen a series of stabbings targeting police officers or soldiers and carried out by Muslim radicals.
Monday night’s attack shook police officers, and Cazeneuve said they would be allowed to take home their service weapons.
“Today every police officer is a target,” Yves Lefebvre of police union Unite SGP Police-FO told the AP.