Marseille knife attack reminds France Isil threat is far from over
THE main train station in France’s second city, Marseille’s Saint Charles, is a constant hive of activity.
The people who pass through its concourse every day amount to a microcosm of this, the most diverse city in France outside Paris.
Home to one of the country’s largest Muslim populations and one of its largest Jewish communities, Marseille has been shaped by centuries of immigration from ancient Greeks to Romans, Algerians, Spaniards, Armenians and Comorans.
A city that intrigued Mauranne Harel when she moved there from her small Provencal town to study medicine three years ago.
On the afternoon of October 1, Harel was walking outside the Saint Charles station with her cousin, Laura, who was visiting that weekend from Lyon to celebrate a birthday, when a man set upon them with a knife.
Witnesses said he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for ‘God is most great’) as he lunged at the two women.
Within minutes, all three were dead: the two cousins from their injuries – one had her throat slit, the other was stabbed in the stomach – their assailant after he was shot by patrolling soldiers.
The attack jangled nerves, not just in Marseille, but throughout a France still shaken by a series of terrorist attacks since 2015.
Isil’s media wing, Amaq, claimed the attacker – named later by police as 29-yearold Ahmed Hanachi – was one of its “soldiers,” but did not provide evidence that Hanachi was linked to the group.
“We are still in a state of war,” French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb told French radio.
Up to now, Marseille has been spared the type of terrorist attacks Isil has claimed in Paris, Nice and other French cities and towns.
A number of planned attacks had been foiled – including one in the run-up to this year’s presidential elections – and a number of arrests made in the city but until this month an Isil attack was a fear not yet realised.
While a number of Marseillaise have radicalised and joined groups like Isil, locals point out that the figures are relatively low compared to other French cities.
France has produced the largest number of homegrown militants in Europe, with more than 1,000 French citizens travelling to Syria and Iraq to join Isil and other groups in recent years.
Many of their personal stories – leading lives marked by petty criminality and little or no religious observance – echo that of Hanachi, who was born in Tunisia.
He had a history of petty crime and drug and alcohol abuse but managed to evade police by assuming seven different aliases since 2005.
Two days before the Marseille attack, he was arrested in Lyon for shoplifting but was released by police due to a lack of evidence the next day. While Hanachi was not on any extremist watch-list, the decision by the Lyon police to let him go was criticised by the government’s inspectorate general, who said it revealed “serious faults” in the system regarding monitoring foreigners whose papers are not in order. Investigations into how and why Hanachi went from petty criminal to apparent Isil sympathiser are now centring on his family and social circle.
Four of his siblings were arrested in the days following the attack. While two have been freed, the others – brothers Anis and Anouar – await extradition after they were arrested in Italy and Switzerland. Anis, in particular, is of interest to French investigators. Said to have previously fought in Syria and Iraq, detectives suspect he may have been complicit in the Marseille attack.
According to Italy’s head of counterterrorism, French investigators are examining whether Anis “indoctrinated his brother Ahmed and caused his radicalisation”. Two other men have been arrested in connection with the attack in Toulon, a town some 65km east of Marseille. They are believed to have hosted Hanachi.
NOT only did the knife attack – and the Isil claim of responsibility – remind France of the threat it still faces, it also took place just days before its lower house of parliament voted in favour of a new counterterrorism law that has proved controversial. The bill will transform into law certain elements of the temporary powers granted under the current state of emergency introduced in late
2015. It grants authorities greater powers to search properties and place people under house arrest without a warrant from a judge.
While rights groups have criticised the legislation, polls show a majority of citizens support it. France has experienced almost two years of being in a state of emergency – the longest uninterrupted period since the time of the Algerian war of independence. The attacks that prompted the government to declare the state of emergency – the multiple targeting of Paris on the evening of November
13, 2015 – are still fresh in the memory, as are the anxieties that followed and still remain today.
Within minutes, all were dead: one had her throat slit, the other was stabbed in the stomach; their assailant was shot by soldiers