Update 2: More than 2 weeks later, BBC finally reports Strasbourg gunman Chekatt ‘pledged allegiance to IS in video’
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – A gunman on a security watchlist killed three people and wounded a dozen others near the picturesque Christmas market in the historic French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday evening before fleeing.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the shooter had evaded a police dragnet and was on the run, raising concerns of a follow-up attack.
“The government has raised its security threat to the highest level and is bolstering border controls,” Castaner told a late-night news conference. “We will also reinforce security at all Christmas markets to prevent copycat attacks.”
With France still on high alert after a wave of attacks commissioned or inspired by Islamic State militants since early 2015, the counter-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation.
Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who was known to the intelligence services as a potential security risk.
Castaner said the gunman exchanged shots with security forces twice as he escaped. His whereabouts now were unknown, and elite commandos and helicopters were involved in the manhunt.
The Paris prosecutor said the motive for the attack was not known. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but the U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.
The attack began at about 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) as stallholders prepared to close down and restaurants filled in the city, which sits across the Rhine River from Germany. Bystanders were swiftly ushered into nearby shops.
The Strasbourg prefecture said the gunman was on an intelligence services watchlist.
Sources familiar with the police operation said the suspect’s home had been raided earlier in the day in connection with a robbery during the summer, but he was not found there.
Security was tight this year for the Christmas market, which is popular with visitors to the city’s old quarter, with its Gothic cathedral and half-timbered houses.
Unauthorized vehicles were excluded from surrounding streets during opening hours and checkpoints were set up on bridges and access points to search pedestrians’ bags.
Some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the “S File” watchlist, of whom about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalized, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist Muslim mosques, online or abroad.
European security agencies have feared for some time that Islamist militants who left Europe to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would return after the jihadist group’s defeat, with the skills and motivation to carry out attacks at home.
Secular France has been grappling with how to respond to both homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond since 2015.
In 2016, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people. In November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives. There have also been attacks in Paris on a policeman on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the offices of satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.
Almost exactly two years ago, a Tunisian Islamist rammed a hijacked truck into a Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 11 people as well as the driver.
Strasbourg shooting toll rises to three dead, 12 critically wounded, French interior minister says, AFP reports.
The attacker Cherif Chekatt shouted “Allahu Akbar”, a French prosecutor has said.
Police have named the suspect of the Strasbourg Christmas terror attack as local Cherif Chekatt.
- The suspect, Cherif Chekatt, 29, was born and raised in Strasbourg
- His activities within the local radical Islamic community raised red flags and he had been added to a terror watch list
- He was known as a potential security risk
- The 29-year-old was sent to jail by a court in the German town of Singen for a violent robbery in Germany. After serving the sentence, Chekatt, a French national with North African roots, was deported back to France in 2017
- He has also spent time in prison in France and is believed to have been radicalized in prison. He has been described as “notorious” to police, with a long criminal record
- All told, the public prosecutor said the suspect has been convicted 27 times in France, Germany and Switzerland
- Police had intended to arrest Chekatt in connection with an armed robbery hours before he allegedly opened fire on the Christmas market – but he was nowhere to be found when they raided his home. Police did, however, discover a grenade
- Investigators are still working to establish a motive in the attack
- The suspect fired three separate volleys into the crowds at the Christmas market then engaged twice with patrolling soldiers from Opération Sentinelle, a nationwide security operation established after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015
A judicial official says that the father and two brothers of the man suspected of attacking the Strasbourg Christmas market are among four people in custody in the investigation.
The suspected gunman himself, identified by police union officials as 29-year-old Cherif Cherkatt, is at large.
He was on a police watch list for radicalism before Tuesday’s attack. The judicial official says that other members of Cherkatt’s family are also known for radical views.
French authorities have issued a wanted poster and are calling for witnesses amid a massive manhunt for the suspected shooter nearly 24 hours after a deadly attack at the Strasbourg Christmas market.
A photo of Cherif Chekatt, 29, who was born in Strasbourg, was distributed publicly Wednesday evening.
The poster warns: “Dangerous individual, above all do not intervene.” It asks anyone with information that could help locate him to contact authorities.