In a revelation likely to fuel further questions about security failings in France, investigators revealed Tuesday afternoon that one of the two men who killed a priest in his church in northern France earlier in the day had been charged with terror links and was wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. He carried out the attack while on morning release from house arrest, they said.
The attacker has been identified as Adel Kermiche,19, a local youth whose parents flagged his radical behavior to authorities in their hometown of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where the attack took place.
Kermiche was arrested trying to go to Syria and was put under judicial supervision upon his return, with an electronic bracelet that was deactivated for five hours a day, allowing him to leave home without surveillance, according to a police official with knowledge of the investigation.
The Paris-based Marianne magazine reported that he was jailed after his second attempt to travel to Syria and had become radicalized following the attacks in Paris in January 2015. He was allowed furlough every day from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., according to the report.
The Islamic State group said that two of its “soldiers” were responsible for the attack, in which Kermiche and another man, both armed with knives, entered the centuries-old stone St-Etienne church in the working-class town during morning mass.
Sister Danielle, a nun who was in the church at the time, said slain priest Jaques Hamel, 84, was wearing his white cloak and was at the foot of the altar when “they forced him to get on his knees and not move.”
“He tried to struggle, he tried,” she told local radio RMC of the priest aged in his 80s. “He knew what was happening.”
She said the men were speaking Arabic and shouting and had recorded the attack on video. She managed to run away and alert the police.
Both attackers were shot dead by police after an hour-long standoff. Hours later, prosecutors in Paris said one person had been detained in connection with the attack.
Target ‘Crusader coalition’
French President Francois Hollande said the terrorists had claimed they were acting on behalf of the Islamic State before being shot dead by police.
The IS-linked Amaq news agency, citing a “security source,” said the perpetrators were “soldiers of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls to target countries of the Crusader coalition.”
It was the fourth attack claimed by IS in Europe in two weeks, carried out by a mixed bag of assailants more or less inspired by the group from afar, some of whom are reported to have suffered mental illness.
This murky profile is creating a nightmare for security services unable to stop such attacks, although Hollande insisted the country’s anti-terrorism laws were sufficient.
The French interior ministry said that of the five people taken hostage at the church, three were released unharmed and another was in a critical condition.
A source close to the investigation said that in addition to the knives, the attackers carried an old pistol that did not work and a “fake package” that appeared as if it contained explosives.
‘All stand together’
Hours after the attack, grey clouds hung over the town, which was nearly deserted, its stores shut down. Forensic police were combing the site for clues. An AFP reporter saw police carrying out two raids and at least one person was taken into custody.
Joanna Torrent, a 22-year-old store employee, was stunned to see terror hit her small working class town of 30,000 people, far from bustling tourist hubs like Paris and Nice.
“I thought it would only be in big cities, that it couldn’t reach here,” she said.
The local imam Mohammed Karabila said he was “stunned by the death of my friend,” the priest, who was “someone who gave his life to others.
“We are dumbfounded at the mosque,” he said.
Pope Francis voiced his “pain and horror” at the “barbaric killing” of the priest.
“The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote on Twitter.
Valls warned earlier this week that France would face more attacks as it struggled to deal with extremists returning from jihad in Iraq and Syria and those radicalized at home.
France has been on high alert after three major attacks in 18 months.
When Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel plowed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice on July 14, a bitter political spat erupted over alleged security failings, with authorities accused of not doing enough to protect people.
After Nice, France extended a state of emergency for the fourth time since IS jihadists struck Paris in November, killing 130 people.
“I am not surprised, he talked to me about it all the time,” a teenager who claimed to have known Kermiche, one of the church attackers, told RTL radio.
“He talked about Islam, that he was going to do things like this,” the teenager said. “He said, ‘I am going to do a church’ two months ago. I didn’t believe him. He said a lot of things.”