PARIS – Before the killings began, the largest church in Nice was quiet and almost deserted.
Vincent Loqués opened Notre-Dame Basilica at 8:30 am as usual. The iconic cathedral, a striking bone white structure, was built in the mid-1860s in the Gothic Revival style and sits on Avenue Jean Médecin de Nice, a bustling downtown thoroughfare lined with cafes and of shops. Loqués, 55, has worked there as a sacristan for the past 10 years, and his duties included welcoming visitors and worshipers when the church opened.
One of those devotees was Simone Barreto Silva, 44. This mother of three, born in Brazil, had lived in Nice for decades and had come to the basilica for a morning prayer.
A few minutes later, a young man armed with a knife entered the church and began to attack those inside, stabbing Loqués and Silva. Loqués died at the scene, but Silva was able to stumble to a nearby cafe before collapsing and dying from his injuries.
A third woman, who has not yet been identified, is said to have suffered such a dreadful blow to the neck that she was virtually beheaded.
Police identified the knife as Ibrahim Issaoui, a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant who allegedly arrived in Europe in September. Police sources told the French press that Issaoui landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he was placed in quarantine before being ordered to leave Italy. He reportedly entered France earlier this month and was not known to French intelligence services. Earlier today, authorities also arrested a 47-year-old man suspected of having been in contact with Issaoui the day before the attack.
CCTV cameras captured the suspect at Nice’s main train station, where he changed his clothes, then proceeded to the nearby basilica to begin his rampage. Police arrived less than half an hour later and shot Issaoui, who was carrying a copy of the Koran and shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest). He was taken into custody and remains in hospital in critical condition.
The horrific attack shook France and strangely resembles the horrific murder of history professor Samuel Paty, beheaded in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine two weeks ago.
Paty was assassinated after sharing cartoon images of Prophet Muhammad – considered blasphemous in the Muslim faith – during a lesson on free speech at the college where he taught. His attacker was identified as Abdulakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Chechen who traveled some 50 kilometers to the site with the intention of assassinating Paty. He was shot dead by the police.
Before Paty’s assassination, a young man armed with a meat cleaver stabbed and injured two people outside the former offices of Charlie hebdo as the trial began for alleged accomplices in the 2015 murderous attack on the satirical magazine.
The murders in Nice follow another nationwide lockdown following an explosion of COVID-19 cases in France in recent weeks, and add to the stress and worry that has plagued the country since the virus began to spread across Europe at the end of winter.
Images of armed police descending on the cathedral evoked memories of 2015 and 2016, when a series of terrorist attacks in France killed some 230 people. Eighty-six of the victims died on Nice’s famous Promenade Anglaise when a Tunisian national drove a truck into a crowded crowd of July 14 revelers.
“France is under attack,” President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday in a statement in front of the basilica. “If we have been attacked again, it is because of our values, our taste for freedom; the freedom to believe freely and not to give in to any terror. “
Macron also said he would deploy thousands more troops to protect important sites such as places of worship and schools, and the government has since raised the security alert in France to “emergency attack level. – the highest in the country.
Although the exact motive of Issaoui is not yet known, tensions have been high in the country since the opening of the Charlie hebdo trial. The magazine marked the occasion by reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, sparking a debate on free speech and stoking anti-French sentiment in parts of the Muslim world. And while the country promises to quell terrorism, it remains grappling with how to deal with radical Islam without alienating its Muslim population.
“I came here to prove that not all young Muslims are like this. In my religion, to kill a human being is to kill all of humanity.“
The attack in Nice also raised concern among Muslims in the country, who fear such acts will stigmatize them and sow division. In addition, Macron’s recent campaign against what he calls “Islamic separatism”, and the intransigent comments of some members of his government – Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called Muslim extremism “an internal enemy. – have left many Muslims feeling as if their faith, not the jihadists, is being targeted.
Leila, a longtime Muslim in Nice who runs a bakery with her husband, told RFI of the suspicious looks she received on the tram right after the attack.
“A man sat next to me,” she recalls. “And a woman asked him if he was afraid of having his throat slit.
“Containment can accelerate extremist behavior when made worse by other emotional factors.“
The murders in Nice may or may not be linked to the extremist fury over the Muhammad cartoons, but there is also another element at play. Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has taken center stage in national consciousness and has become the country’s most pressing concern. However, the latest round of attacks reminded us that while terrorism is no longer at the forefront of national concerns, it remains a threat to public security.
In August, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, addressed the press during a visit with the anti-terrorist forces in Lyon.
“The virus doesn’t take a vacation,” she said. “And neither does the threat of terrorism.”
Some analysts have gone further, claiming that the arrival of the virus has caused a resurgence of radical and extremist groups in Europe. The global pandemic, they say, has enabled these groups to take advantage of the crisis both as a means of disseminating their ideology and as a recruiting tool.
In an editorial published in May by the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, Ivano di Carlo writes that the effect of the health crisis on the economy – the loss of jobs, the stress that follows , growing social inequalities – is coupled with the lockdown and a sense of isolation “provides fertile ground for extremist recruiters,” who use the internet to spread their agenda and target new members.
“Containment can accelerate extremist behavior when made worse by other emotional factors,” he writes. “Anti-extremism practitioners have warned that the increase in time spent online by people in lockdown presents an opportunity for extremist cells to recruit vulnerable people through online platforms.”
Just two days after France was locked down for the first time on March 17, the so-called Islamic State presented a strategic plan in its official bulletin, calling on subscribers to exploit the virus’s toll on the global economy and resources. state by launching more strikes. West.
“… The last thing they [Western countries] want today is that in these difficult times, the soldiers of the caliphate are preparing to strike them as they struck Paris, London, Brussels and [other] cities ”, we read in the document, quoted in a report of the International Institute of the fight against terrorism.
Di Carlo agrees that in addition to laying the groundwork for further radicalization, the COVID-19 crisis is straining government resources to fight extremism.
“Fighting against radical and violent ideologies remains a major challenge for Europe,” writes di Carlo. “However, there is a risk that the COVID-19 crisis will distract attention from this threat and reduce the prevention and response to violent extremism, including financial support to programs, due to the economic impact and massive social pandemic.
French terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard made similar comments in an interview with Le Figaro in April of this year, saying that the Islamic State was using the health crisis to its advantage, assuming the pandemic would distract global priorities from fighting terrorism.
“ISIS hopes to take advantage of the ‘paralysis’ of Western countries to restore its operational capacities in the region and incite its supporters to plan and prepare attacks in Western countries,” he said.
On Thursday evening, a vigil was held in front of the illuminated basilica, where residents gathered to honor the three victims who died there.
“I came here to prove that not all young Muslims are like that,” said Mohamed Gouasmi, 28. The Express. “In my religion, to kill a human being is to kill all of humanity.”
Several hours later, after everyone had returned home and the candles went out, France began its second lockdown.
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