28 July 2016 – The Australian
France was seeking yesterday to understand how a jihadist awaiting trial on terror charges could attack a church in broad daylight, killing a priest, in an atrocity claimed by Islamic State.
Adel Kermiche, 19, was one of two attackers who stormed the church in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass on Tuesday, slitting the throat of 86-year-old priest Jacques Hamel and leaving a worshipper with serious wounds.
The attack comes less than two weeks after Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into a crowd in Nice, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Kermiche first came to the attention of anti-terror officials when a family member alerted authorities that he was missing, in March last year. German officials arrested him and found he was using his brother’s identity in a bid to travel to Syria.
He was released under judicial supervision, but in May fled to Turkey, where he was again arrested and returned to France. He was then held in custody until March this year.
Kermiche was released and fitted with an electronic bracelet, which allowed him to leave his house on weekdays between 8am and 12.30pm, Mr Molins said.
Socialist President Francois Hollande — who faces a tough re-election bid next year — rejected renewed opposition calls to further harden France’s anti-terrorism legislation. “Restricting our freedoms will not make the fight against terrorism more effective,” Mr Hollande said.
Legislative changes last year and the extension of a state of emergency after the Nice attack, already gave authorities sufficient “capacity to act”, he said.
But French police union deputy chief Frederic Lagache, said: “It should not be possible for someone awaiting trial on charges of having links to terrorism to be released” on house arrest.
Mohammed Karabila, who heads the regional council of Muslim worship for Upper Normandy, asked simply: “How could a person wearing an electronic bracelet carry out an attack? Where are the police?”
Kermiche and another assailant entered the centuries-old stone church of Saint Etienne, taking hostage Father Hamel, three nuns and two worshippers.
One of the nuns managed to escape and call police, who tried to negotiate with the hostage-takers. The nun, Sister Danielle, said Father Hamel was wearing his white vestments and was at the foot of the altar when “they forced him to get on his knees and not move”.
“He tried to struggle, he tried,” she said, adding that the men were speaking Arabic and shouting and had “recorded” the attack.
Three hostages were lined up in front of the church door, meaning police could not launch an attack, Mr Molin said. Two nuns and one worshipper exited the church followed by the two attackers, one carrying a handgun, who charged at police shouting “Allahu akbar!” (God is greatest).
One of the attackers was carrying a “fake explosive device covered in aluminium foil” and three knives. The other was holding in his hand a kitchen timer covered in foil, and carrying a backpack containing a similar fake bomb.
The two were killed by police.
Mr Molins said a 17-year-old born in Algeria had been taken into custody. He is the younger brother of a man wanted under an international arrest warrant for having left for the Iraq-Syria zone.