After a two-day manhunt that extended from eastern France into Germany, French police announced Thursday night that the hunt had ended and they had caught the attacker.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner reported that police in Strasbourg had “neutralized” a person matching the description of the suspect in Tuesday’s attack on a Christmas market.
Castaner not did confirm that the person apprehended was Cherif Chekatt, 29, suspected of killing three people and wounding 13 others at the Christmas market, France’s largest.
But an official in the Paris prosecutor’s office, which oversees terrorist investigations in France, told French newspaper Le Monde that it was Chekatt and that he had been killed.
Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries tweeted that “we learned that the terrorist who took our city died during the attempted arrest in that took place tonight in the district of Neudorf.”
That’s the same neighborhood where Chekatt was said to have been dropped off Tuesday night by a taxi he commandeered to flee the city center.
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency claimed the Strasbourg attacker as a “soldier” who had “carried out the operation in response to a call to target citizens of the international coalition.” The group regularly claims affiliation with individuals who may have been inspired by Islamic State messaging but who carried out attacks on their own initiative and had no established ties to the terrorist group.
More than 700 officers had been engaged in the manhunt for the suspect, a French citizen and resident of the Strasbourg area with a long criminal record.
Heightened security checks at the border between France and Germany resulted in long lines Thursday for those traveling between the two countries.
In a political climate defined by social unrest – and an ongoing protest over the economic policies of President Emmanuel Macron – the Strasbourg attack came as a shock, a reminder of the terrorist violence France has faced in recent years and a threat that has hardly vanished, even as attacks have decreased in frequency.
“The terrorist threat is still at the core of our nation’s life,” Macron said in comments reported by government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.
During the day Thursday, an uneasy quiet shrouded this Franco-German city known for its holiday bustle and seasonal cheer.
For some here, what happened Tuesday night was almost inevitable. It was only a matter of time, they said, before Strasbourg experienced the kind of violence that had erupted elsewhere in France since 2015 – large-scale attacks in Paris and Nice, and smaller-scale ones in towns such as Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where a self-proclaimed Islamic State sympathizer slit the throat of a village priest in July 2016.
“I was speaking just the other day with a shopkeeper,” said Élisabeth Kneib, 55, who moved to Strasbourg two years ago. She was standing at a makeshift memorial on the Rue des Orfevres, one of the sites of the attack. “We were saying that, in a way, we were almost waiting for something.”
The same Christmas market was the target of at least two foiled attacks, by al-Qaida-linked operatives in 2000 and Islamic State affiliates in 2016.
The surrounding region, Alsace, is home to a high number of those on the “Fichier S” list, a government database of individuals who ostensibly pose a threat to national security.
Paris Prosecutor Rémy Heitz confirmed that Chekatt was on that list. He also noted that the suspect had 27 criminal convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland.
In total, there are about 25,000 names on Fichier S. The names are reviewed and updated annually, and individuals are not informed that they are on the list. Although any number of political activities can land a person on the Fichier S, in recent years it has come to be understood as a dossier of potential terrorists.
A senior German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said Chekatt had “apparently self-radicalized in 2011 during prison time in France.” The official did not know why Chekatt had been in prison at the time.
Chekatt also had been in German custody in 2016 in the city of Konstanz and in Freiburg prison until February 2017, both times because of theft, the official said. Chekatt was subsequently extradited to France.
French authorities have long vowed to overhaul prisons as part of efforts to combat extremism among inmates. A significant number of those behind recent attacks are thought to have been radicalized in French prisons.
“No one has a magic formula for ‘deradicalization,’ as if you might uninstall dangerous software,” French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said in February. “But in France and elsewhere, there are good approaches to prevention and disengagement.”
The government has urged the creation of segregated spaces in prisons for “radicalized” inmates.
A further problem, security analysts said, is that little can be done to stop individuals from carrying out small-scale, low-budget attacks such as the Strasbourg shooting.
In March, a lone gunman, a 25-year French national of Moroccan descent, killed four people, including a police officer, in a supermarket hostage standoff in southwestern France.
“There’s a feeling of inevitability,” said François Heisbourg, a former presidential adviser on national security and president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Interior Ministry official Laurent Nunez said police went to Chekatt’s Strasbourg home on the morning of the attack to arrest him in an attempted-murder case. He was not there. A search yielded a grenade, a rifle, ammunition and knives.
Hours later, Chekatt allegedly opened fire on the Christmas market.
The market was scheduled to reopen Friday.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · James McAuley