French police detain main suspect in ‘symbolic’ attack outside Charlie Hebdo’s former office

French prosecutors have opened a terrorism investigation after two people were wounded in a knife attack in Paris on Friday near the former offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The suspected perpetrator, as well as six other men, have been taken into custody.

Two victims were seriously injured, the Paris police department said. The main suspect was caught and taken into custody almost immediately after the attack, along with another man whose links to the suspected perpetrator is currently being investigated. Later Friday, police also detained five other men who were apprehended as officers searched a home in the Paris suburbs believed to belong to the main suspect.

France’s counterterrorism prosecutor said authorities suspect a terrorist motive because of the place and timing of the stabbings: in front of the building where Charlie Hebdo was based until the Islamic extremist attack on its cartoonists and at a time when suspects in the 2015 attack are on trial across town.

Prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said that the chief suspect in Friday’s stabbings was arrested, along with another person. Ricard said the assailant did not know the people who were stabbed, two workers in a documentary production company who had stepped outside for a cigarette break.

The suspects’ identities have not been released, and it is unclear exactly what prompted the attack. An investigation was opened into “attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise”, according to an official at the terrorism prosecutor’s office.

“All the team at Charlie offers support and solidarity to its former neighbours and colleagues at PLTVfilms and to the people hit by this odious attack,” Charlie Hebdo tweeted.

‘Symbolic’

Later Friday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex arrived at the scene after cutting short a visit to northern Paris. He underscored the “symbolic site” of the attack, “at the very moment where the trial into the atrocious acts against Charlie Hebdo is under way”. He promised the government’s “unfailing attachment to freedom of the press, and its determination to fight terrorism”.

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Castex also added that the injuries the two victims had sustained in the attack were “not life-threatening”. Charlie Hebdo’s current address is kept secret for security reasons.

The two people confirmed injured worked for documentary film company Premières Lignes, according to founder Paul Moreira. He told BFM television that the attacker fled into the subway, and the company’s staff members were evacuated.

Moreira said a man in the street “attacked two people who were in front of the building, didn’t enter the building, and who attacked them with an axe and who left”. He said the company had not received any threats.

Police cordoned off the area, including the former Charlie Hebdo offices, after a suspect package was noticed nearby, but the package was found to be harmless and no explosives were found, according a police official.

‘Looks improvised’

Citing corroborative sources close to the investigation, FRANCE 24’s terror expert Wassim Nasr said that the main suspect has confessed to the attack and is an 18-year-old man of Pakistani origin. He is not believed to have been known to police previously.

“We don’t know much about him because up to this point, no [terror] organisation has claimed the attack,” said Nasr.

Nasr said the second suspect, who is being probed for his links to the Pakistani man and who several news outlets have identified as an Algerian national, is expected to be released shortly.

Another five men, born between 1983 and 1996, were seized in the Paris suburb of Pantin on Friday evening as police searched what they believe is the main suspect’s home.

Nasr said the attack indeed seemed symbolic and that it may have been triggered by Charlie Hebdo’s decision in September to republish the controversial cartoons, including of Prophet Mohammed, that led to the deadly attack at the weekly´s offices in 2015. Many Muslims consider is blasphemous to depict the prophet.

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“Not only did al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula issue statements calling for [new] attacks (…) but many voices in the Muslim world spoke out against the republication of those cartoons,” he said.

No terror organisation has yet claimed the attack, and according to Nasr, several details point to it being improvised and having been organised only by the main suspect.

“Look at the details of this attack: it was carried out with a butcher´s knife, it doesn’t look like the attacks that were prepared by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and perpetrated by the Karachi brothers back in 2015.”

“It looks improvised. It doesn’t mean that al Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) group aren´t preparing attacks, but improvised attacks tell us more about the kind of attack that we are talking about [here]. So the person who committed this attack could have acted on his own.”

‘Screams of terror’

A witness told FRANCE 24: “We heard screaming in the street. Clearly they were screams of terror and one of the men that worked here came out, and very quickly we understood that someone had been attacked. We realised that someone had been stabbed next door. He was taken aside for emergency treatment.”

Reporting from the scene, FRANCE 24 journalist Christophe Dansette said one of the suspects was “covered in blood” after being apprehended by police near the Place de la Bastille in eastern Paris.

Friday´s stabbing came as a trial was underway in the capital for alleged accomplices of the instigators of the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo. Twelve people, including some of France’s most celebrated cartoonists, were killed in the attack by brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, who claimed to be part of a branch of al Qaeda.

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A female police officer was killed a day later, followed the next day by the killing of four men in a hostage-taking at a Jewish supermarket by gunman Amedy Coulibaly.

The 14 defendants stand accused of having aided and abetted the perpetrators of the 2015 attacks, who were themselves killed in the wake of the massacres.

The magazine, defiant as ever, had marked the start of the trial by republishing hugely controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that had angered Muslims around the world.

Al Qaeda then threatened Charlie Hebdo with a repeat of the 2015 massacre of its staff.

The trial in Paris had resumed Friday after a suspect’s coronavirus test came back negative.

The hearing for the 14 suspects, which opened on September 2, was postponed Thursday after Nezar Mickael Pastor Alwatik fell ill in the stand.

His lawyer, Marie Dose, said her client had suffered from “a lot of fever, coughing, vomiting and headaches”.

He was back in the box on Friday, after the presiding judge informed defence and prosecution lawyers by SMS late Thursday that the test results allowed for the trial to go ahead.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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