Nicolas Henin, consultant and trainer in counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization
It was a highly targeted attack that concluded a crazy week of cyber mobbing. The victim was Samuel Paty, aged 47, who was beheaded on Friday 16 October as he was leaving his secondary school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, west of Paris. The terrorist’s name is Abdouallakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov, he is a refugee of Chechen origin born in Moscow 18 years ago. Originally, a furore had arisen around Paty after the teacher showed his pupils cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, during a class on freedom of expression. The cartoons had been published by satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, which was itself attacked in January 2015 by jihadists; its editorial staff was decimated.
In the days following the lesson, several social network posts and videos appeared on YouTube, claiming that the teacher had asked Muslims pupils to “name themselves and leave the classroom” before the display of “pornographic images”, and that the teacher had a student suspended from school for two days for protesting. The video was made and propagated by a parent who called Mr. Paty a “thug” and called for him to “say stop”.
“It is now clear that the teacher has been named as a target on social networks through manoeuvring and reinterpretation of facts,” the National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor summarised at a press conference. The magistrate named two main perpetrators: the father who ignited the controversy, Brahim C., and an Islamist activist named Abdelhakim Sefrioui. A complaint had been filed by the parent against the history/geography teacher for “dissemination of pornographic images”. The teacher in return filed a complaint for public defamation. The territorial intelligence service, in charge of the lower end of the terrorist threat spectrum, had written a note on the incident, but no special protective measures had been put in place.
The investigation reveals that the terrorist had several telephone exchanges with the father of the student who was at the origin of the harassment. But when he arrived in front of the school late Friday afternoon, the killer only knew the name of the teacher. He then had to ask for the help of two pupils, aged 14 and 15, to identify him. They pointed him out to him in exchange for a payment of “300 or 350 euros”. These pupils are being prosecuted for complicity even though they claim that the terrorist told them that he only “intended to film the teacher, to force him to ask forgiveness for the cartoon of the prophet, to humiliate him, to hit him”, according to the anti-terrorist magistrate.
An embarrassing detail for the counter-terrorism services: Abdullakh Anzorov was neither known nor on file. Yet his radicalization dates back to about a year ago and had not been especially low-key. An analysis of the Twitter account on which he claimed responsibility for his action brought up hundreds of extremely virulent posts, several of which had been reported both to Twitter and to the platform set up by the police, called Pharos. The first pieces of investigation by the Sub-Directorate for Counter-Terrorism (SDAT) and the General Directorate of Internal Security (DGSI) showed him proselytising his family, his rejection of women, messages in praise of the jihad and even contact with militants in Syria, according to the investigators. “Despite these signs of sectarian drift, this 18 year old Chechen from Evreux (Eure) remained under the radar of the intelligence services: he was neither on the ‘S files’ (for threats to the State Security), nor was he under surveillance”, wrote the newspaper Le Parisien, which had access to the investigation documents.
The @Tchetchene_270 Twitter account, created last June and held by Abdouallakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov, is also hostile towards the Sufis and all those who do not share his vision of Islam, which he defines as Salafist. He focuses his criticism on the Saudi regime of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and on the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, but he defends Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Afghan Taliban.
According to his Twitter account, his radicalization suddenly accelerated on 25 September. On that day, a Pakistani asylum seeker went to the former headquarters of Charlie Hebdo newspaper, who had moved since the 2015 attack. Not finding the newspaper offices, he seriously injured two journalists from a nearby news agency before being arrested. Since then, Abdouallakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov has been trying, using his open Twitter account, to obtain the addresses of three people who he believes are guilty of insulting the Prophet. Without success. Samuel Paty, the professor from Conflans, was the fourth person he became interested in.
From 11 October, he stopped publishing anything and even erased all his messages, except for two videos of Chechen anashids. He changed his Twitter profile to make it clear that he was looking for martyrdom. Then the account remained inactive until minutes after the attack, when he posted a photo of his victim’s head.
The reaction in France has been an intense rekindling of the already-heated debates around the notion of secularism. The Minister of the Interior announced the imminent expulsion of “231 undocumented foreigners being monitored on suspicion of radicalisation,” but this was mainly a political announcement as most of these procedures had been launched long ago and delayed by the pandemic crisis. Another angle to the response has been the associations. The cabinet pronounced the dissolution of the Sheikh Yassin Collective, a pro-Hamas organization “linked to last Friday’s attack and for a long time” the bastion of “an anti-republican ideology that spreads hatred,” in the words of government spokesman Gabriel Attal.
The Interior Minister also called for the dissolution of associations such as the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), described as “enemy of the Republic” and the Salafist-affiliated NGO BarakaCity. The Ministry of Finance has been called upon the state to verify through tax audits the origin of the funding of 51 associations considered as suspicious. The President of the Republic announced that he was ready to wage “a security, educational, cultural and lasting battle” against “political Islamism”.
There have also been unofficial, lawless actions, notably the targeting of two veiled Muslim women near the Eiffel Tower, which, according to the initial findings by the police, seems to have racist motivations. A mosque in Bordeaux was covered with tags and had broken windows, and one in Béziers was threatened on Facebook. The Interior Minister asked on Twitter that “the prefects of the departments concerned to protect these places of worship. Such acts are unacceptable on the soil of the Republic”.
On 21 October, a national homage was paid to the murdered professor in the prestigious courtyard of the Sorbonne University. President Emmanuel Macron, bearing the emotion of the nation, delivered a speech denouncing the “cowards” who handed Samuel Paty over “to the barbarians”. Paty, said Macron, was “one of those professors that we do not forget”, the one who “shows the greatness of thought, teaches respect, shows what civilization is all about”. The French president finally recalled that France would not give up “caricatures and drawings”. Addressing the professor, he promised: “we will continue this fight for freedom and for the reason, a fight of which you are now the face”.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.