As­sailant at Orly had been flagged as rad­i­cal Is­lamist

At­tacker killed at Paris air­port said he wanted to die ‘in the name of Al­lah’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JAMES MCAU­LEY james.mcau­ley@wash­post.com

paris — A man pre­vi­ously known to French anti-ter­ror author­i­ties was fa­tally shot early Satur­day at Orly Air­port af­ter strug­gling to steal a sol­dier’s gun and ear­lier as­sault­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer at a traf­fic stop in a north­east­ern Paris sub­urb, the Paris pros­e­cu­tor said.

The sus­pect, whom author­i­ties iden­ti­fied as the French-born Ziyed Ben Bel­gacem, 39, told the of­fi­cers he at­tacked in Orly Air­port that he wanted to die “in the name of Al­lah” and that “what­ever hap­pens, there will be deaths,” ac­cord­ing to François Molins, the pros­e­cu­tor.

Just be­fore 8:30 a.m. Satur­day, Ben Bel­gacem ap­proached three of­fi­cers on pa­trol in Orly’s South Ter­mi­nal and took one of them, a woman, hostage. He held a gun to her head and, con­trary to ear­lier re­ports, man­aged to wrest her as­sault ri­fle away from her.

Molins said the as­sailant in­tended to open fire on the crowd of trav­el­ers.

Ear­lier Satur­day morn­ing, Ben Bel­gacem shot and lightly wounded a po­lice of­fi­cer at a traf­fic stop and then hi­jacked a woman’s car at gun­point in an­other nearby sub­urb, the Paris pros­e­cu­tor con­firmed. He con­tin­ued to Orly, south­east of Paris, where he grabbed the as­sault ri­fle from a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer on duty. The stolen car was re­cov­ered at the air­port, French author­i­ties said.

French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande said author­i­ties would in­ves­ti­gate whether the at­tacker “had a ter­ror­ist plot be­hind him,” but the Paris prose­cu­tors’ of­fice had already an­nounced that its anti-ter­ror­ism sec­tion had taken over the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Molins con­firmed to re­porters Satur­day af­ter­noon that Ben Bel­gacem, who was pre­vi­ously known to author­i­ties in sev­eral drug and rob­bery cases, had been flagged on the gov­ern­ment’s radar for “Is­lamist rad­i­cal­ism” in the past af­ter an ex­am­i­na­tion dur­ing a prison stint.

In Novem­ber 2015, Molins said, fol­low­ing the deadly Is­lamic State-or­ches­trated at­tacks on Paris, Ben Bel­gacem’s name had been among those whose homes French author­i­ties searched in connection with an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into rad­i­cal­ized net­works.

The searches — au­tho­rized un­der France’s of­fi­cial “state of emer­gency,” passed af­ter the Paris at­tacks — have been fre­quently crit­i­cized as vi­o­lat­ing the civil lib­er­ties of those searched and de­tained, and rights ad­vo­cates have pushed the gov­ern­ment to de­fine “Is­lamist rad­i­cal­ism” more clearly.

The man’s father, brother and cousin had also been de­tained, Molins said.

The other two sol­diers on duty at Orly fired a to­tal of eight rounds at Ben Bel­gacem. No other in­juries were re­ported.

Wit­nesses at the air­port de­scribed rapid gun­fire in a bustling ter­mi­nal full of week­end trav­el­ers.

“We had queued up to check in for the Tel Aviv flight when we heard three or four shots nearby,” one trav­eler, Franck Le­cam, told Agence France-Presse.

“The sol­diers took aim at the man, who in turn pointed the gun he had seized at the two sol­diers,” an­other wit­ness, iden­ti­fied only as Do­minique, said on France’s BFM tele­vi­sion.

The of­fi­cers who were at­tacked be­longed to Op­er­a­tion Sen­tinel, Molins said, an elite squadron of French se­cu­rity forces es­tab­lished in 2015 to com­bat ter­ror­ism.

Op­er­a­tion Sen­tinel, cre­ated af­ter the at­tack on the satir­i­cal Char­lie Hebdo mag­a­zine in Jan­uary 2015, in­cludes nearly 10,000 sol­diers, about half of whom pa­trol in the Paris re­gion, mostly at tourist sites and com­muter hubs.

About 3,000 pas­sen­gers were evac­u­ated from the South Ter­mi­nal, and pas­sen­gers in Orly’s West Ter­mi­nal were con­fined there, Pierre-Henry Bran­det, a spokesman for France’s In­te­rior Min­istry, said Satur­day morn­ing.

Shortly af­ter noon, a po­lice search of the air­port ended and pas­sen­gers from 13 flights stranded on the air­field were able to dis­em­bark, author­i­ties said. Flights re­sumed.

The Satur­day at­tack mir­rored a shoot­ing Feb. 3, when an Egyp­tian man at­tacked Op­er­a­tion Sen­tinel sol­diers out­side the Lou­vre mu­seum and was then se­ri­ously wounded.

France has been un­der an of­fi­cial state of emer­gency since Novem­ber 2015, when a cell of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants car­ried out at­tacks on a con­cert hall, a sta­dium and a num­ber of cafes across Paris. One hun­dred thirty peo­ple were killed.

Hol­lande’s So­cial­ist gov­ern­ment has strug­gled to stave off a steady stream of at­tacks that have con­tin­ued de­spite height­ened se­cu­rity pre­cau­tions, in­clud­ing the launch of Op­er­a­tion Sen­tinel and home seizures that crit­ics say are in­ef­fec­tive and have in­fringed on civil lib­er­ties in the process.

For in­stance, de­spite the im­po­si­tion of the of­fi­cial state of emer­gency, in July, a lone driver, al­legedly in­spired by the Is­lamic State, plowed through crowds gath­ered to cel­e­brate a na­tional hol­i­day in the sea­side city of Nice, killing 86.

A num­ber of smaller-scale at­tacks have taken place since, in­clud­ing the July slay­ing of an 85-year-old vil­lage priest, when two at­tack­ers back­ing the Is­lamic State — one of whom had been on a gov­ern­ment watch list — slit the priest’s throat in the mid­dle of a Mass.

The coun­try is on edge head­ing into rounds of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in late April and early May, in which is­sues of na­tional se­cu­rity and immigration have been cen­tral talking points for can­di­dates across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Hol­lande, whose his­toric un­pop­u­lar­ity pre­vented him from stand­ing for re­elec­tion, has been con­stantly crit­i­cized for per­ceived in­com­pe­tence on se­cu­rity is­sues.

Marine Le Pen, the anti-im­mi­grant leader of France’s far-right Na­tional Front who is lead­ing the polls in ad­vance of the first round of the pres­i­den­tial vote, wasted no time in blam­ing Satur­day’s in­ci­dent on the in­cum­bent ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“France [is] over­whelmed by vi­o­lence, the con­se­quence of the lax­ity of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments,” she said on Twit­ter. “But there is the courage of our sol­diers!”

By con­trast, Le Pen’s lead­ing op­po­nent for the pres­i­dency, Em­manuel Macron, a pop­u­lar cen­trist can­di­date, gave a speech Satur­day in Paris on the is­sue of de­fense, prais­ing in his re­marks the “calm, con­trol and pro­fes­sion­al­ism” of the of­fi­cers at Orly.

Hol­lande, in a state­ment, re­it­er­ated France’s com­mit­ment “to act with­out respite to fight ter­ror­ism, de­fend our com­pa­tri­ots’ se­cu­rity and en­sure the pro­tec­tion of the ter­ri­tory.”

KAMIL ZIHNIOGLU/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Trav­el­ers pre­pare to re-en­ter Orly Air­port, south of Paris, as flights were grad­u­ally re­sum­ing Satur­day. Ear­lier, elite French sol­diers guard­ing the air­port fa­tally shot a man who of­fi­cials said had wrested an as­sault ri­fle away from a sol­dier. No one else was in­jured.

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