AFP — A history teacher beheaded in a Paris suburb on Friday had been the target of online threats for having shown pupils cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed in class, France’s anti-terror prosecutor said on Saturday.
The father of a schoolgirl had sought 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty’s dismissal and launched an online call for “mobilization” against him after the lesson on freedom of expression, Jean-François Ricard said in a televised news conference.
Paty was decapitated outside his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of the capital, and the killer was fatally wounded by police.
Ricard identified the attacker as Abdullakh A., an 18-year-old Chechen with refugee status in France. The Russian embassy in Paris said the suspect was Abdullakh Anzorov, whose family had arrived in France when he was six and requested asylum.
Ten people, including the schoolgirl’s father, have been arrested.
Ricard said the school received threats after the class in early October, which featured the controversial caricatures — one of the prophet naked — with the girl’s father accusing Paty of disseminating “pornography”.
The girl and her father lodged a criminal complaint against the teacher, who in turn filed a complaint of defamation, said Ricard.
The aggrieved father named Paty and gave the school’s address in a social media post just days before the beheading, which President Emmanuel Macron has labeled an Islamist terror attack.
And early this week, he posted a video in which he said Islam and the prophet had been “insulted” at the school.
High terrorist threat
Ricard did not say if the attacker had any links to the school, pupils or parents, or had acted independently in response to the online campaign.
Witnesses said he was spotted at the school on Friday afternoon asking pupils where he could find Paty.
A photograph of Paty and a message admitting to his murder were found on the assailant’s mobile phone.
The prosecutor said the attacker had been armed with a knife, an airgun and five canisters. He had fired shots at police and tried to stab them as they closed in on him.
He was shot nine times, said Ricard.
This was the second such attack since a trial started last month into the January 2015 massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, which had published caricatures of the prophet that unleashed a wave of anger across the Islamic world.
The magazine republished the cartoons in the run-up to the trial, and last month a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside Charlie Hebdo’s former Paris offices.
Ricard said Paty’s murder illustrated “the very high level terrorist threat” France still faces.
Those arrested included four close family members of Abdullakh A., and two people who had reported to police to say they had been in contact with him, said the prosecutor.
Police also arrested a friend of the schoolgirl’s father who had gone with him to see the principal to demand Paty’s dismissal.
The friend was already on the radar of French intelligence services, and Ricard said a warrant of arrest is out for the father’s half sister, who has joined the Islamic State group’s fighters in Syria.
‘Will not win’
The attacker himself was not known to the French intelligence services, said the prosecutor.
An investigation is underway into “murder linked to a terrorist organization”.
The investigation will also look at a tweet from an account that has since been shut down that showed a picture of Paty’s head and described Macron as “the leader of the infidels”.
Macron this month invoked the ire of Muslims when he described Islam as a religion “in crisis” as he unveiled a plan to defend France’s secular values.
The president visited the scene of the crime on Friday, and vowed that “the entire nation” stood ready to defend teachers.
His office said a national tribute would be held in Paty’s honor.
On Sunday, ministers who form France’s defense council will meet to discuss the killing, while a public mourning event is planned.
On Saturday, hundreds of pupils, teachers and parents flooded to Paty’s school to weep and lay white roses.
Some carried placards stating: “I am a teacher” and “I am Samuel” — echoing the “I am Charlie” cry that traveled around the world after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings.
‘Super friendly and kind’
Martial, a 16-year-old pupil, said Paty had loved his job: “He really wanted to teach us things.”
“According to my son, he was super nice, super friendly, super kind,” Nordine Chaouadi, a parent of one of Paty’s students, told AFP.
According to parents and teachers, Paty gave Muslim children the option to leave the classroom before he showed the cartoons, saying he did not want their feelings hurt.
Virginie, 15, said Paty showed the cartoons every year as part of a discussion about freedom following the Charlie Hebdo attack.
In a tweet, Charlie Hebdo expressed its “sense of horror and revolt” at Friday’s attack.
“A teacher was assassinated for the work that he does, but freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and the ability to teach these fundamental principles in our schools have also been attacked,” added Ricard.