A suspect shot dead by police after the beheading of a history teacher near Paris was an 18-year-old Chechen refugee unknown to intelligence services who posted a grisly claim of responsibility on social media minutes after the attack, officials said Saturday.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said authorities investigating the killing of Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on Friday arrested nine suspects, including the teen’s grandfather, parents and 17-year-old brother.
Paty, who was 47, had discussed caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with his class, leading to threats, police officials said. Islam prohibits images of the Prophet, asserting that they lead to idolatry. The officials could not be named because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations.
Muslims believe that any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.
French anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said an investigation for murder with a suspected terrorist motive had been opened.
Ricard told reporters that the Moscow-born suspect, who had been granted a 10-year residency in France as a refugee in March, was armed with a knife and an airsoft gun, which fires plastic pellets.
WATCH | Suspect shot by police after beheading in France:
The teenager had approached pupils in the street and asked them to point out his victim, he said.
The prosecutor said a text claiming responsibility and a photograph of the victim were found on the suspect’s phone. He also confirmed that a Twitter account under the name Abdoulakh A belonged to the suspect. It posted a photo of the decapitated head minutes after the attack, along with the message, “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.”
Headmaster received threatening phone calls
The post was removed swiftly by Twitter, which said it had suspended the account because it violated the company’s policy.
Ricard said the suspect had been seen at the school asking students about the teacher, and the headmaster had received several threatening phone calls.
The suspect’s half-sister joined the Islamic State group in Syria in 2014, Ricard said. He didn’t give her name, and it is not clear where she is now.
The attacker, of Chechen origin, had been living in the town of Évreux, northwest of Paris, and was not previously known to the intelligence services, Ricard told a news conference.
Mourners marched near the school in solidarity on Saturday, holding signs that read “I am a teacher.”
“We’ll pick ourselves up together, thanks to our spirit of solidarity,” said Laurent Brosse, mayor of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.
Parents of students laid flowers at the school gate. Some said their children were distraught.
“[My daughter] is in pieces, terrorized by the violence of such an act. How will I explain to her the unthinkable?” one father wrote on Twitter.
A police official said the suspect was shot dead about 600 metres from where Paty died. Police opened fire after he failed to respond to orders to put down his weapons and acted in a threatening manner. The official could not be named because of the ongoing investigations.
French President Emmanuel Macron went to the school on Friday night to denounce what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack.” He urged the nation to stand united against extremism.
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“One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught … the freedom of expression, the freedom to believe or not believe,” Macron said.
The presidential Élysée Palace announced that there will be a national ceremony at a future date to honour Paty.
Canada’s foreign affairs minister, François-Philippe Champagne, also condemned the attack on Twitter Saturday.
Canada condemns the despicable act committed against a teacher in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/France?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#France</a>. We will always defend freedom of speech & freedom to teach. <br><br>We are all united against terrorism. Our thoughts are with the family and French people. <a href=”https://twitter.com/JY_LeDrian?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@JY_LeDrian</a>
In a video posted recently on Twitter, a man describing himself as the father of a student asserted that Paty had shown an image of a naked man and told students it was “the prophet of the Muslims.”
Before showing the images, the teacher asked Muslim children to raise their hands and leave the room because he planned to show something shocking, the man said. “What was the message he wanted to send these children? What is this hate?” the man asked. The AP has not been able to independently confirm these claims.
Chechen refugees immigrated to France after war
Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus. Two wars in the 1990s triggered a wave of emigration, with many Chechens heading for western Europe. France has offered asylum to many Chechens since the Russian military waged war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Chechnya’s strongman regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has used massive federal subsidies to rebuild the province and squelched any resistance with his feared security forces, condemned the teacher’s killing but also warned against insulting the feelings of Muslims.
“We condemn this act of terror and offer our condolences to the relatives of the man who was killed,” Kadyrov said on his blog. “While speaking out categorically against any manifestation of terrorism, I also urge not to provoke believers, not to offend their religious feelings.”
He went on to criticize French society for what he described as manifestations of “provocative” disrespect for Islamic values. “When France has a proper state institution of inter-ethnic and inter-faith relations, then the country will have a healthy society.”
France has seen occasional violence involving its Chechen community in recent months, believed linked to local criminal activity and score-settling.
This is the second time in three weeks that terror has struck France linked to caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Last month, a young man from Pakistan was arrested after attacking two people with a meat cleaver outside the former offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The weekly was the target of a deadly newsroom attack in 2015 after it published cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. It republished the same caricatures last month to underscore the right to freedom of information as a trial opened linked to that attack.
Friday’s terror attack came as Macron’s government works on a bill to address Islamic radicals, who authorities claim are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic.