ARRAS, France (AP) — A man of Chechen origin who was under surveillance by the French security services over suspected Islamic radicalization stabbed a teacher to death at his former high school and critically wounded two other people in northern France on Friday, authorities said.
The attack was being investigated by anti-terror prosecutors amid soaring global tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas. It also happened almost three years after another teacher, Samuel Paty. was beheaded by a radicalized Chechen near a Paris area school.
President Emmanuel Macron said France had been “hit once again by the barbarity of Islamist terrorism”
“Nearly three years to the day after the assassination of Samuel Paty, terrorism has hit a school again and in a context that we’re all aware of,” Macron said at the site of the attack in Arras, a city 115 miles (185 kilometers) north of Paris.
A colleague and a fellow teacher identified the dead educator as Dominique Bernard, a French language teacher at the Gambetta-Carnot school, which enrolls students ages 11-18. The victim “stepped in and probably saved many lives” but the two wounded people — another teacher and a security guard — were fighting for theirs, according to Macron.
The French leader said police thwarted an “attempted attack” in another region of the country after the teacher’s fatal stabbing. He did not provide details, but police said a man armed with a knife was arrested coming out of a prayer hall in the Yvelines region west of Paris. The man’s motives weren’t immediately clear, police said.
The suspected assailant in Arras was arrested. The National Police force identified him as a Russian national of Chechen origin who was born in 2003. The French intelligence services told The Associated Press the man had been closely watched since the summer with tails and telephone surveillance and was stopped as recently as Thursday for a police check that found no wrongdoing.
Sliman Hamzi, a police officer who was one of the first on the scene said the suspected attacker, a former student at the school, shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.
Hamzi said he was alerted by another officer, rushed to the school and saw a male victim lying on the ground outside the school and the attacker being taken away.
“Colleagues arrived quickly but unfortunately couldn’t save the victim,” Hamzi said. He said the victim had his throat slit.
“I’m extremely shocked by what I saw,” the officer said. “It was a horrible thing to see this poor man who was killed on the job by a lunatic.”
Macron traveled to Arras along with the interior and education ministers. Macron stopped for a moment before the blanket-covered body of the teacher, which was in the parking lot in front of the school. A puddle of blood was visible as forensic experts worked around the body.
Macron then went to see students from the school in an adjacent building. School attacks are rare in France, and the government asked authorities to heighten vigilance at all schools across the country.
Julie Duhamel, an official with the the Unsa teachers’ union in the Pas-de-Calais region that includes Arras, told Franceinfo that teachers had noted the suspect’s radicalization “a few years ago.”
The suspected assailant’s telephone conversations in recent days gave no indication of an impending attack, leading intelligence officers to conclude that the assailant decided suddenly on Friday to act, intelligence services told the AP.
The suspect’s brother was arrested in the summer of 2019 by the DGSI — France’s counter-terrorism intelligence service — on suspicion of being involved in planning of attack that was thwarted and is in jail, French intelligence said.
Police said another brother was taken into custody for questioning on Friday.
Hundreds of police deployed around the school and nearby neighborhoods, including heavily armed units, and barricaded a wide perimeter around the school after the attack.
Friday’s attack had echoes of Paty’s slaying on Oct 16, 2020 — also a Friday — by an 18-year-old who had become radicalized. Like the suspect in Friday’s stabbings, the earlier attacker had a Chechen background; police shot and killed him.
Martin Doussau, a philosophy teacher at Gambetta-Carnot, said the assailant was armed with two knives and appeared to be hunting specifically for a history teacher. Paty taught history and geography.
“I was chased by the attacker, who … asked me if I teach history. (He said), ‘Are you a history teacher, are you a history teacher?’” said Doussau, who recounted how he barricaded himself behind a door until police used a stun gun to subdue the attacker.
“When he turned around and asked me if I am a history teacher, I immediately thought of Samuel Paty,” Doussau told reporters.
Prosecutors said they were considering charges of terror-related murder and attempted murder against the suspect.
The attack came amid heightened tensions around the world over Hamas’ attack on southern Israel and Israel’s blistering military response, which have killed hundreds of civilians on both sides.
France is estimated to have the world’s third-largest Jewish population after Israel and the U.S., as well as the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin on Thursday ordered local authorities to ban all pro-Palestinian demonstrations amid a rise in antisemitic acts since last Saturday’s attack by Hamas militants and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment and siege of Gaza.
France’s National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, held a minute of silence for the victims at the opening of its Friday session.
Macron said the school in Arras would reopen as soon as Saturday morning, and he urged the people of France to “stay united.”
“The choice has been made not to give in to terror,” he said. “We must not let anything divide us, and we must remember that schools and the transmission of knowledge are at the heart of this fight against ignorance.”
Leicester reported from Paris and Petrequin from Brussels. Angela Charlton in Paris and Michel Spingler in Arras, France, contributed.