On Tuesday night a man shot at a crowd in central Strasboug. Three were killed and 12 injured in the attack that took place next to a Christmas market. By Wednesday morning security forces were still hunting the suspect, who is known to counter-terrorism services. He initially fled in a taxi from the city of 270,000 which is located near the German border.
According to reports the perpetrator appears to have acted alone. This conjures up memories of the murder of 12 people in the 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin. The perpetrator in the Germany attack, who was born in Tunisia in 1992 had been in prison in Italy where he was allegedly “radicalized.” German security services had warned of his terrorist connections in the spring of 2016 and he was supposed to be deported.
According to France 24 the suspect in the Strasbourg shooting was also known to police. He is 29 years old and was born in Strasbourg. He was confronted by soldiers who have been deployed in French cities as part of Operation Sentinelle. These soldiers were deployed after the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130. The Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has said the suspect “sowed terror” at three places in the city. The reference to “three places” leaves more questions about what happened. It appears that the reference is to the suspect coming into contact twice with security forces and exchanging fire with them.
As with many attacks in Europe over the last several years the suspect was already known to security and police. He had served a sentence and been convicted of unspecified crimes in both France and Germany, according to reports. In 2016 he was “flagged by anti-terrorist services,” France 24 reported. “He had been reported by the General Directorate for Internal Security.” The intelligence agency had even visited him in prison and taken account of his “religious proselytism.” Yet, even with this long rap sheet and being monitored by security forces, he carried out an armed robbery on Tuesday before the attack. During a search of his apartment grenades were found which leads to questions about how a man who was well known for violent proclivities and apparently religious extremism was able to acquire his arsenal.
The attack took place within one kilometer of the European Parliament, which has taken the attack in stride. Antonio Tajani, the president of the parliament, tweeted the parliament would not be intimidated. “Let us move on,” he wrote. But residents and others may want more answers. One man told the BBC that he had attempted to aid a victim of the attack, waiting for 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. “A doctor told us on the phone that it was senseless,” to continue to aid the dead victim. This leads to questions about why medical services took so long to reach the scene.
The attack in Strasbourg is among the most serious incidents this year in Europe, after a spate of ISIS-inspired attacks between 2015 and 2017. However the background of the alleged perpetrator appears to fit a much larger pattern, particularly in France. Mohammed Merah, the perpetrator of the Toulouse and Montaubon attacks, was born in Toulouse. A petty criminal he then went to Afghanistan and Pakistan and was placed under surveillance in 2006 and again in 2009. He went to Egypt and Pakistan and was followed by security service upon his return in 2011. Yet despite all this he was able to acquire weapons and between March 11 and 19 went on a spree of killing, targeting soldiers and then a Jewish school.
One of the suspects in the November 2015 Paris attacks had a similar long rap sheet. Arrested for armed robbery in 2010, convicted for theft twice, breaking and entering once, and convicted of theft again in 2012. Then the suspect went to Syria, engaged in extremism, and returned to Europe. A second member of the cell that planned the 2015 Paris attack was named Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He too was arrested in 2010 for breaking into a garage, spent time in three prisons, and then went to Syria. He was even convicted of abduction and video in Syria showed him next to “bloody corpses” as he bragged he had loaded trucks with the bodies of “infidels.” Nevertheless he was able to return to Europe via Greece and is alleged to have helped plan four attacks in the spring of 2015 before being tracked down after the Paris attacks.
Similarly the 2016 Brussels terror attack was carried out by men who had a long history of criminal and terrorist activity. Ibrahim EL Bakraoui had been involved in a robbery and gun battle with police in 2010. He was released in 2014 and travelled to Turkey before returning to Belgium. Another perpetrator, named Khalid El Bakraoui had been involved in “several” carjackings and had been caught with numerous illegal AK-47s. He was also convicted of “robbery and kidnapping” in 2009. Yet for all these crimes he received only several years in prison.
Almost every major attack in Europe in the last several years has fit this pattern. The 2017 Stockholm truck attack was also carried out by a perpetrator who had connections to jihadist groups and was involved in other criminal activities prior to the attack. He was also known to security services.
French authorities have not released a motive behind the Strasbourg attack although counter-terrorism prosecutors have opened and investigation. They had also not released the suspect’s name or a photo by Wednesday morning, despite there being a major manhunt. The French deputy interior minister was quoted in Reuters saying it was not clear if the suspect was still in France. This will lead to many questions about how the man was able to obtain weapons and why he was able to elude police throughout the day Tuesday before the attack, despite being wanted for another crime.
The problem for security services in many European countries still appears to be the gap between surveillance of members of the criminal-terrorist extremist nexus, and prosecuting perpetrators for crimes such as acquiring illegal firearms. In almost every incident the perpetrators are known and some have been involved in numerous serious crimes. Yet they have received short sentences and usually been able to go on to commit new crimes while acquiring weapons. There also appears to be a continuing issue involving coordinating between countries. If the suspect in Strasbourg was able to get to Germany, despite clashes with security forces, that will lead to questions about how quickly the Germans were alerted. The suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack also was able to cross numerous borders before being tracked down in Italy. Why police did not release the photo, description or details about the perpetrator more than 12 hours after the incident was also unclear. Eventually these details will be explained, but the incident shows that despite deploying soldiers as part of the wide-ranging Sintinelle operation, there are issues relating to response time and when to interdict suspects during the process of monitoring them.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.