PARIS – Paris, on edge after weathering a year of jihadist violence, faced a fresh scare Thursday as police shot dead a knife-wielding man on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
An image of the ISIS flag, printed on paper, was found on the man’s body, along with a handwritten note in Arabic from him claiming responsibility for the attack, the Paris prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The office’s anti-terror section is investigating.
The man, whose identity is not known, was shot as he attempted to enter a police station in the northern Paris neighborhood of Barbes, bearing a butcher’s knife and yelling “Allahu Akbar,” the statement said. He was carrying a fake explosive device, it said.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said at a press conference that investigations were underway to determine the identity of the attacker and his motivations.
“In a country where the threat level is extremely high, the police and gendarmerie are on the front lines,” he said. “I’d like to thank them for their very great courage … and their commitment to protect the French people.”
The attempted attack took place at 11:30 a.m., the Paris prosecutor’s office said — a year to the minute since the Charlie Hebdo killings, the first of a spate of deadly jihadist attacks that have roiled the French capital over the past 12 months.
In those attacks, two gunmen killed 12 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine, which had angered Islamists for its irreverent approach to Islam and publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Two more attacks — one against a police officer and another that included a hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket — brought the final death toll to 17.
On high alert against the jihadist threat since then, France suffered an even greater blow November 13 when 130 people were killed in Paris in coordinated attacks on a concert hall, bars, restaurants and a sports stadium. ISIS claimed responsibility.
In the aftermath, French President Francois Hollande declared that the country was at war with the terror group and set about strengthening international efforts to strike ISIS on territory it controls in Syria and Iraq.
‘It’s going to be this way’
Caroline Fourest, former journalist at Charlie Hebdo, responded like many Parisians with weary resignation to Thursday’s attempt — a reflection that such incidents had become “the new normal” in France over the past year.
“We know that ISIL or al Qaeda is encouraging (such attacks) in Europe, not only in France,” she told CNN, using another name for ISIS. “So we’re fortunate to see when those attacks are failing.”
Europe was “just at the beginning” of weathering the threat from jihadism, she said.
“We know that it’s going to be this way for the next years as long as the people who are giving orders from Syria are not disconnected.”
She said the work of her former colleagues was badly missed on such occasions.
“We are missing them, but we’re missing their cartoons too, to laugh a little bit.”
Speculation over motive
In the aftermath of the shooting, a heavy security presence was in force at the scene near the police station in Goutte D’Or in the 18th arrondissement.
Officers advised residents to remain indoors and attempted to clear the area. At the Polyvalent de la Goutte d’Or, a school on the same street as the police station, students were confined in the building, school director Eric Denis told CNN.
Parisians, already wary on a highly sensitive anniversary, were left to speculate about the attacker’s motivations: whether he was a lone wolf, a disturbed individual or possibly the first wave of the kind of coordinated attacks that struck in November.
Terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Center for Analysis of Terrorism, noted the attack occurred in the 18th arrondissement, which could have a symbolic connection to the ISIS-claimed November attacks.
The terror group’s claim of responsibility for those killings referred to an operation in the 18th arrondissement, but none occurred there. That statement, along with a reference to eight attackers when there had only been seven, led to speculation an eighth jihadist had planned an attack in the district but backed out.
Regis Le Sommier, co-editor of Paris Match magazine, said he was inclined to think the latest attack was self-directed, rather than coordinated by the central command of ISIS or another terror group, since it took place on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo assault.
Since 9/11, he said, jihadists had not shown any particular interest in striking on the anniversaries of terror attacks despite the sensitivities around the dates. “That probably makes me think that he decided to do it on his own,” he told CNN.
CNN’s Niki Cook, Saskya Vandoorne, Greg Botelho, Kristie Lu Stout, Margot Haddad, Alexander Felton and Lindsay Isaac contributed to this report.