A man of Chechen origin who was under surveillance by French security services for suspected radicalization allegedly stabbed to death a teacher at his former high school and seriously injured two others in northern France on Friday, authorities said.
The attack is being investigated as a potential terrorism incident at a time of rising global tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas. It also comes nearly three years after another teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by radical Chechens near a school in the Paris region.
French counterterrorism prosecutors said they were leading an investigation into the attack on the Gambetta-Carnot school for students aged 11 to 18 in the city of Arras, about 115 miles north of Paris.
A colleague and a teacher identified the deceased as Dominique Bernard, a French teacher at the school.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the school hours after the attack, said the victims “intervened and probably saved many lives.” Macron also said police foiled an “attempted attack” in another region of France after the teacher was stabbed to death, but he gave no details.
The suspect in the attack has been arrested. The national police force identified him as a Chechen Russian citizen born in 2003. French intelligence said the suspect had been closely monitored with tracking and phone monitoring since the summer and was stopped by police for examination on Thursday. No wrongdoing was found.
Sliman Hamzi, a police officer who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, said the suspect shouted “God is great!” in Arabic.
Hamzy said he was alerted by another officer and he rushed to the school where he saw a male victim lying on the ground outside the school as his attacker was taken away.
“Colleagues arrived quickly but unfortunately were unable to save the victim,” Hamzy said. He said the victim’s throat had been slit.
“I was absolutely shocked by what I saw,” the officer said. “It was a horrific thing to see this poor man killed by a madman on the job.”
Two other men – another teacher and a security guard – were in critical condition, police said.
Macron traveled to Arras with the interior and education ministers. Macron paused for a moment in front of the teacher’s blanket-covered body in the parking lot in front of the school. As forensic experts looked around the body, a pool of blood could be seen.
Macron then went to visit students at the school in a neighboring building. School attacks are rare in France and the government has asked authorities to increase vigilance in all schools across the country.
Julie Duhamel, an official with the Unsa teachers’ union in the Pas-de-Calais region, which includes Arras, told Franceinfo that teachers had noticed the suspect’s radicalization “several years ago”.
Intelligence told The Associated Press that the suspect’s phone conversations in recent days showed no signs of an imminent attack, leading intelligence officials to conclude he suddenly decided to take action on Friday.
French intelligence said the suspect’s brother was arrested by France’s counter-terrorism intelligence service DGSI in the summer of 2019 for his alleged involvement in planning an attempted attack and is currently in jail.
Another brother was detained for questioning on Friday, police said.
Hundreds of police officers, including heavily armed units, were deployed around the school and nearby neighborhoods, and a wide cordon was set up around the school. Parents said students were still confined to the locked-down school more than three hours after the attack.
Friday’s attack echoes the killing of Patty on October 16, 2020 (also a Friday) by an 18-year-old who became radicalized. Like the suspect in Friday’s stabbing, the attacker had a Chechen background.
Martin Ducho, a philosophy teacher at Gambetta High School, said the attacker appeared to be looking for a history teacher.
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“I was chased by my attacker, who … asked me if I taught history. (He said) ‘Are you a history teacher? Are you a history teacher?'” Dussault said, describing how he locked himself in the door. Later, the police subdued the attacker with a stun gun.
“When he turned to me and asked me if I was a history teacher, I immediately thought of Samuel Patty,” Dushaw told reporters.
Prosecutors said they were considering terror-related murder and attempted murder charges against the suspect.
The attack comes as tensions rise around the world amid weekend Hamas attacks in southern Israel and Israel’s military response. Hundreds of civilians were killed on both sides. Muslim countries called for mass protests after Friday prayers in response to Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Thursday ordered local authorities to ban all pro-Palestinian demonstrations amid a rise in anti-Semitic behavior since Hamas attacks.
France is estimated to have the world’s third-largest Jewish population, after Israel and the United States, and the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
The French National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) opened its session on Friday with a minute’s silence for the victims.
“As we learn that a teacher has been killed and several others injured, the institution expresses its solidarity and condolences to the victims, their families and the education community,” National Assembly Vice President Naima Muchu said.