French police grill attack suspect after grisly beheading
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who cut short an official trip to South America to rush home, warned France faced more attacks and that Friday’s assault on a gas factory near the second city of Lyon would increase tensions in the country, putting citizens’ resilience “to the test”.
No jihadist group has claimed Friday’s attack, which came on the same day as a massacre at a Tunisian beach resort in which 38 people were gunned down and a suicide bombing in Kuwait that killed 26.
The other two attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State group.
Suspect Yassin Salhi, a 35-year-old married father-of-three, was arrested after causing an explosion by driving a delivery van into a warehouse containing bottles of dangerous gas and chemicals at the US-owned Air Products factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Lyon.
The prosecutor in the case said firefighters overpowered Salhi as he was trying to open acetone bottles in what is believed to have been an attempt to cause a larger explosion.
The firefighters then discovered the decapitated body of his 54-year-old boss Herve Cornara — who ran a delivery firm — near the car, along with a knife.
Cornara’s head was pinned to a nearby fence.
“The head was surrounded by two Islamic flags bearing the Shahada, the profession of (the Muslim) faith,” said prosecutor Francois Molins.
Authorities hope an autopsy, expected to be carried out later Saturday, will offer more clues. A source close to the case said it would seek to determine if the victim was first killed before being decapitated.
Meanwhile, in the town of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, shocked residents held a minute’s silence, followed by a pulsating rendition of France’s national anthem.
One man, Philippe Ouastani, said he turned out in solidarity with the victim. “It’s unheard of to decapitate someone in the 21st century. What weapons do we have to combat that? Being here, together.”
Another woman, wearing the Muslim headscarf, said she was “unable to speak” when she heard the news.
“These acts have got nothing to do with religion. The Prophet never said to kill innocent people,” raged the woman, who requested to remain anonymous.
She tried to find words to explain the killing to her four-year-son.
“There are naughty people who have done bad things. The police will put them in prison to punish them for their silly, silly actions,” she told him.
The gory attack in France came nearly six months after a three-day Islamist killing spree in Paris left 17 people dead, most of them gunned down in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Like the Charlie Hebdo attackers and Islamist Mohamed Merah who gunned down soldiers and Jewish children in the southwest city of Toulouse in 2012, Salhi had been known to security services for “radicalisation”, but slipped through the cracks.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Friday Salhi had been investigated for links to radical Salafists in Lyon, but was not identified as having participated in terrorist activities and did not have a criminal record.
Speaking after a ministerial meeting on Saturday with President Francois Hollande, Cazeneuve vowed the government would “continue to work relentlessly” against terrorism.
France is on high alert over hundreds of citizens who have gone to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria, as well as those involved in recruitment or radicalisation online.
Similarly, Europe has for months been bracing for so-called “lone wolf” attacks by supporters of Islamic State, which has urged its followers to strike wherever they can.
Cazeneuve outlined measures taken by the government in recent months to face “a threat which has never been as high” such as the creation of hundreds of new jobs for police, gendarmes and intelligence agents.
Some 230 million euros ($256 million) will also go to modernising surveillance methods to keep track of jihadists online.
Earlier this week, France passed a controversial new spying law granting sweeping powers to snoop on citizens.
Cazeneuve said the law allowed security services to be “better armed” to fight the jihadist threat
Valls warned Friday’s attack would fuel tensions in France — home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population — that “will be exploited”.
“This macabre act of decapitation, staged with flags, is new in France” and aimed at “making an impact,” Valls said.
“It’s difficult for a society to live for years under the threat of attack,” he told AFP on a flight back from Colombia.
“The question is not… if there will be another attack, but when.”