Paris Assault Suspect Needed to Goal Charlie Hebdo With Arson

PARIS – The man suspected of stabbing two people in front of Charlie Hebdo’s former Paris office last week admitted to investigators he wanted to set the building on fire and railed against cartoons in a video found on his phone of the Prophet, but he have not pledged allegiance to any known terrorist group, the French authorities announced on Tuesday.

Jean-François Ricard, the chief prosecutor for counterterrorism, said at a press conference that the video showed suspect Zaher Hassan Mahmood, 25, crying and denouncing the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

Mr Ricard said Mr Mahmood told investigators that he had searched online for the address for Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper whose office was attacked in January 2015, and had explored the area but failed to notice that they had moved . He had originally planned to set fire to the former newspaper’s offices, Ricard said, adding that police found several bottles of turpentine in his pocket.

But Mr Mahmood changed his mind when he saw two people smoking outside the building near a mural paying tribute to those killed in 2015, Mr Ricard said. He thought they were employees of the newspaper and pounced on them with a meat cleaver. The “extremely violent” attack on surveillance cameras lasted only 20 seconds, Ricard said.

Last week’s attack, which took place during an ongoing trial of several people in connection with the January 2015 killings, brought fear of terrorism back to the surface in France. In recent years threats have evolved – from large-scale organized attacks like the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed more than 100 people, to isolated acts that are harder to predict and prevent.

Mr Ricard said Mr Mahmood, who is from Pakistan and had never been reported by French intelligence services in the past, had no previous convictions.

The French authorities had previously identified the man as an 18-year-old based on statements made to the police. However, on his phone, investigators found a picture of his passport identifying him as 25. Mr. Ricard declined to comment when asked if the Pakistani authorities had confirmed Mr. Mahmood’s identity.

Mr Mahmood was expected to be charged with attempted murder and criminal conspiracy, both of aggravated terrorism, Mr Ricard said.

Nine people associated with Mr. Mahmood who were held in police custody following the attack have been released without charge. Investigators said they gave insight into his actions before the attack. These workers reported that Mr. Mahmood had repeatedly seen videos starring the founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a stubborn Islamic group that organized several demonstrations in Pakistan earlier this month after Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

Mr Ricard said Mr Mahmood told investigators that he saw videos of these protests.

Another man, an Algerian in his thirties, was also arrested shortly after the attack but was later released without charge when it was found he had witnessed the attack that ran into Mr Mahmood at a train station to stop him.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday, a man living in Pakistan who identified himself as the suspect’s father said he was “proud” of his son.

“Whatever he has done is in his love for the Prophet Muhammad,” the man, Arshad Mahmood, told the newspaper. “I say whatever he’s done is right.”

Mr Mahmood, a farmer in a small village in central Pakistan, told The Journal that his son, one of seven children, had traveled to France with two brothers two years ago looking for work.

Mr Ricard said Mr Mahmood had been taken into the care of French social services under a false identity, posing as a minor named Hassan Ali since arriving in France in the summer of 2018. He was not a legal resident, however he was scheduled to meet with local authorities to review his status on the day of the attack.

In April, two people were stabbed to death in the south of France in an attack in which police accused a suspect unrelated to a terrorist group.

Laurent Nuñez, the former head of the French secret service, told France Inter Radio on Monday that large-scale attacks are now easier to intercept and that security forces are increasingly encountering people who may be inspired by terrorist propaganda but are not associated with known terrorist groups .

“Often they have no contact with the Syria-Iraq region, so they are not discovered in this regard,” said Nuñez, who is now coordinating France’s response to terrorism. “Therefore it is much more difficult for intelligence agencies to detect.”

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