Killer of French Police Officer Was a Radicalized Islamist, Prosecutor Says

PARIS – Jamel Gorchene, the Tunisian man who killed a police officer on Friday in a terrorist attack that sparked a political storm in France, watched videos “glorifying martyrs and jihad just before he acted,” the said top French public prosecutor for counter-terrorism on Sunday.

At a press conference, public prosecutor Jean-François Ricard portrayed Mr. Gorchene as an immigrant with a “restless personality” whose radicalization went unnoticed by the French secret services before he stabbed the policeman in the neck and stomach on their ward.

“According to two witnesses, the attacker was walking back and forth in front of the building before he struck,” said Ricard. “And he called ‘Allahu akbar'” – God is great in Arabic – “when he stabbed the victim.” Officials identified the dead 49-year-old policewoman by her first name, Stéphanie.

The murder took place in the affluent town of Rambouillet, southwest of Paris, a far cry from the difficult projects that encircle large French cities where many Muslim immigrants, mostly from North Africa, live. The misery in these areas and the failure of integration that they represent have been viewed as a source of Islamist terrorism, which has been a recurring scourge in France, killing more than 200 people in 2015 and 2016 alone.

As the recent murder shows, the pattern of terrorist acts in France is difficult to explain.

Mr Gorchene came to France in 2009 and lived without legal status for a decade, most recently in Rambouillet, before he was able to secure the residence permit for 2019 and a temporary residence permit last year. Described by the neighbors as calm and humble, he left little obvious traces of what the prosecutor called self-radicalization prior to his attack on the Internet.

Mr Ricard said that five people, including Mr Gorchene’s father, had been arrested by the police and that the Tunisian authorities were cooperating.

The attacker was originally from M’saken, the same city in northeastern Tunisia as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the delivery truck driver who plowed a 19-ton refrigerated vehicle into a crowd on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in 2016, killing 86 people. In this case, too, the attacker was not in a French government database of radicalized militants.

Mr Gorchene’s status as an illegal immigrant in France for a decade, and its subsequent regularization, have contributed to a firestorm of criticism of President Emmanuel Macron’s government for being overly sloppy.

Several terrorist attacks since last October have made security a key issue in next year’s presidential election. A poll published on Sunday by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper found that 72 percent of French people consider the issue a priority, below health care but above unemployment and the fight against poverty.

“Macron is synonymous with chaos,” said Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who appears to be in a close race with the president, citing “the multiplication of terrorist attacks.”

Gérald Darmanin, the tenacious minister of the interior appointed by Mr Macron last year to defuse Mrs Le Pen’s appeal, has cited the government’s backlash and stated in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche that “our hand does not tremble. “He said that at the request of Mr. Macron, he would propose a new anti-terror law targeting what he calls” an evolving threat. “

The bill, prepared before the recent attack, would strengthen the technological means by which the government can follow news on social media.

Mr Darmanin cited the fact that intelligence agencies missed the contacts with Syria that the Chechen killer of a teacher had last October because he used Instagram’s news service. Teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded after showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression.

The period in which individuals convicted of terrorism could face various “administrative constraints” after leaving prison would be extended from one to two years, Darmanin said.

When asked if there was a risk of civil liberties being violated, Mr. Darmanin said, “Let’s stop this kind of naivete.”