Mar­seille knife at­tack re­minds France Isil threat is far from over

Irish Independent - - World News - Mary Fitzger­ald

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

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