Just before 8 p.m. on December 11, Chérif Chekatt entered Strasbourg’s Christmas market through the main entrance. He then started a deadly race, shooting passers-by with a gun and stabbing them with a knife. A platoon of the “Sentinel” mission, an operation of the French army defending public places against terrorists, arrived quickly on the scene, alerted by the sound of gunfire and the movement of crowds. They opened fire with their assault rifles, wounding the terrorist in the arm. He fired back at the soldiers. A bullet ricocheted off one of the soldier’s rifles and wounded him in the hand. According to eyewitnesses, the terrorist shouted “Allahu akbar” several times between his shots.
About ten minutes later, the terrorist hijacked a taxi at gunpoint to escape. The taxi driver later testified that Chekatt justified what he was doing to “avenge” his “brothers killed in Syria”. A major police operation was then launched to find him. The Ministry of the Interior reported that over 700 police officers were mobilized in the hunt. Several houses where he might have hidden were raided. Twenty-four hours after the attack, an arrest warrant was issued with the full name and photo of the suspect. At least one mobile road traffic application put the Strasbourg region in a blackout so that motorists could no longer report the position of police forces. Searches were also conducted in Germany, on the other side of the border.
On December 13, he was found by the police. He shot at them and they returned fire, killing him. Less than an hour after his death, Islamic State’s Amaq agency issued a typical statement claiming he was a “soldier of the caliphate”.
Before being radicalized, the 29-year old born in Strasbourg had the profile of a serial offender. He started young and never stopped. His first conviction came at the age of 17, when he was sentenced to two years in prison for aggravated robbery and kidnapping. He went on to spend almost half of his adult life in prison. He was implicated in 27 cases and convicted 25 times for robberies, some of which were violent, violence against police officers, and attempted homicide. He was also known beyond the French borders as he had been arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Germany. He had also been arrested in Switzerland.
According to the first findings of the investigation, the prison administration is not able to say whether he became radicalized in prison. In any case, his radicalization was first detected behind bars, when he was serving a two year sentence between 2013 and 2015.
In May 2016, the DGSI domestic intelligence service issued an S-file (for “state security”) in his name, implying that his case required surveillance because of the terrorist risk he could represent.
On the morning of the attack, the gendarmes (rural police in France) had arrived at his home with an arrest warrant for attempted murder, but he had fled and could not be arrested. A search of his home found a grenade, four knives, including two hunting knives, and a firearm.
Strasbourg is a major center of activity and recruitment for the jihadist movement. The Christmas market, one of the largest in France and even in Europe, had already been targeted by an international plot in 2000. It was one of al-Qaeda’s very first projects targeting Europe and the West. Since then, the market has been the subject of special security measures.
More recently, several recruiters of fighters for Syria and Iraq have been active in the city, with a total of 36 departures. One of them, Foued Mohammed-Aggad, would later become one of the terrorists who attacked the Bataclan theater in Paris on November 13 2015.
In fact, the Bas-Rhin département (district) is one of the areas in France with the highest number of individuals reported for radicalization and listed in the dedicated file (FSPRT) – they number 224.
More information is needed to assess the reactions to this terrorist attack, but the available ones provide us with some initial lessons.
For example, the reactions of those present at the scene of the attack can be lauded. Quite quickly, competent people – doctors, nurses – provided first aid and probably saved lives, especially by stopping bleeding.
The relatively rapid intervention of the military patrol also made it possible to interrupt the killing by forcing the terrorist to flee, even if it failed to neutralize or arrest him.
Furthermore, despite the crowd movements, the public did not show any signs of panic. On the contrary, after four years of attacks, the French seem to have acquired certain protective reflexes: shelter, hiding, discipline in responding to instructions from the police.
The shops or restaurants that were open welcomed passers-by looking for shelter; some then pulled down their iron shutters to protect themselves. Throughout the incident, the public patiently followed the security instructions. In a stadium, spectators had to remain locked up after the end of the match and only left under police protection. The employees of the European Parliament, which was holding a session that evening, remained locked inside until three in the morning, when the police considered that the danger had passed. Overall, the inhabitants of Strasbourg returned or remained at home, leaving the streets empty and free for police and rescue interventions.
As for the media, the response was generally good. The news channels remained cautious in the early stages of the incident and waited for the first elements of the official investigation to confirm its terrorist nature.
But the authorities themselves took time to communicate. For more than an hour, very little information was available. The message “don’t spread rumors, follow the official accounts on social networks” was repeated over and over again, but these accounts themselves were very slow to release information. This gave the news channels a funny show: an hour-long breaking news special edition to say nothing. The journalists on set could only repeat, rephrase and reformulate, again and again: “there is a serious incident in Strasbourg. We don’t know anything more at this point.”
One of the main failures was in the reporting of the toll: the various participants, under the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Interior, failed to confirm it, and during most of the night the media reported a toll fluctuating between one and four deaths, rising and falling depending on the source.
Politicians have shown a relatively low level of resilience. Right-wing and far right groups in particular have sought to use this attack to criticize the government for its security policy, blaming it for its lack of firmness in arresting and imprisoning terrorist suspects.
For example, the leader of the conservative Les Républicains party Laurent Wauquiez tweeted: “How many attacks committed by S files do we still have to endure before we can adapt our law to the fight against terrorism? What are we waiting for to finally fight to eradicate the fundamentalism that has declared war on us? #Strasbourg”.
For her part, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Rally (RN) party, told the France 2 TV channel “we still have this feeling that not everything is done in the fight against terrorism, the armed wing of the ideology of Islamist fundamentalism,” A few hours earlier, she had tweeted: “A radical change must take place, since the policy against terrorism is clearly failing.”
The theme of immigration was also raised, in particular on the far right, which stressed the link between migration policy and terrorist risks and bounced back on the mobilization that had been taking place in France in the previous weeks around the Marrakech Pact on Immigration.
André Bercoff, one of the main far right editorialists who intervenes in many media outlets, published a tweet that was repeated thousands of times: “Strasbourg: the S file that kills in the middle of the Christmas market is the natural son of the Marrakech Pact and the one-ball that we all know.” “One ball” – “monocouilles” in French – is a quite rude and sexist neologism.
The attack was used abroad as well to mobilize public opinion in favor of restricting migration. Let us mention Donald Trump’s emblematic tweet: “Another very bad terror attack in France. We are going to strengthen our borders even more. Chuck and Nancy must give us the votes to get additional Border Security!”
Very early on, the anti-terrorist section of the Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office was involved, which is normal procedure and shows only one direction taken by the investigation without definitively concluding that the incident was a terrorist attack. But the authorities reacted in a rather unclear way.
On the one hand, there was a live interview marked by the caution of Laurent Nunez, the Secretary of State for the Interior and a former director of the DGSI. On the France Inter radio station, he said: “The terrorist motivation of the act has not yet been established”. “Really you have to be very, very careful, many are surprised by this mode of operation”, he insisted. However, the level of anti-terrorist alert was raised to the level of “emergency attack”. The aim was to raise public awareness and invite people to be particularly cautious about anything that might appear suspicious, but it also caused anxiety.
It should be recalled that this attack took place in a tense political and social context, after nearly a month of increasingly violent demonstrations by the “yellow vests”, a populist movement that originated in a protest against fuel prices. The police have been particularly hard hit by the riots that have marked this movement and at the political level the government is facing a very intense challenge.
While attacks often lead to the development of conspiracy theories, it is in the world of the yellow vests that the first theories appeared. “Let’s not be impressed by this attack set up by the secret services from scratch,” says one of them on one of the Facebook pages on which this movement is being organized. Another went further: “You’ll see in a week’s time we won’t even know what a yellow vest is anymore! Well done Micron 1st (a nickname for the French president Macron), the card of the attack in Strasbourg!” One of the movement’s own spokespersons, Maxime Nicolle, posted a video on Facebook questioning the reality of the outrageous attack.
Confusion and conspiracy are not only on the yellow vests side. The usual defenders of this type of theory have run, for example, screenshots trying to make it look like the prefecture’s Twitter account had announced the attack before it occurred.
The confusion was further exacerbated by the release, a few hours before the attack, of a video by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) denying the death of the jihadist leader Amadou Koufa, who was killed by the French army. In this nearly half an hour long video, the group shows pictures of the Champs-Elysées aflame after the riots of the yellow vests, adds images of police repression, and seeks to attract the sympathy of the French by developing the thesis that the country’s financial difficulties are due to collusion with the Rothschild bank – a narrative cherished by the yellow vests – and the cost of military operations abroad. This created a surprising continuum between the demands of the working classes in France and those of African populations considered oppressed by the same global powers.