Paris Orly airport shooting: Attacker was 'radicalised Muslim' man known to French intelligence services

Lizzie Dearden

A “radicalised Muslim” known to security services has been shot dead after attempting to steal a soldier’s gun at Paris Orly Airport.

The 39-year-old French citizen, identified as Ziyed Ben Belgacem, shot at police officers manning a checkpoint in northern Paris with an “air pistol” before launching the airport attack, the French interior minister said.

During a visit to the airport, Bruno Le Roux said one officer was shot during the routine check and was undergoing hospital treatment for injuries to his face.

Passengers evacuated from Orly airport’s southern terminal after the shooting (Reuters)

“We can link the [airport attacker’s] identity with a check carried out at Garges-les-Gonesse by a patrol in Stains this morning,” he added.

“The individual’s identity is known to the police and intelligence services.” Belgacem's father and brother, as well as a cousin, have been detained for questioning.

According to French broadcaster BFMTV he had sent them a text reading: “I screwed up, I shot the police.”

A police source described the attacker as “a radicalised Muslim known to intelligence services”.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference on Saturday evening that at the airport, Belgacem yelled he wanted to die in the name of Allah and said “whatever happens, there will be deaths”.

Mr Molins said the attacker held an air pistol to a soldier’s head and used her as a shield. He apparently wanted to use her weapon to shoot people in the busy airport.

Contrary to earlier reports by French officials, Mr Molins said the attacker did wrench away her powerful military-grade assault rifle.

The soldier’s colleagues fired three bursts – eight rounds in all – when they killed him.

Belgacem had a lengthy criminal history of violence, robbery and drug offences but was not on the “fiche S” list of terror threats, despite being investigated by the DGSI as a potential jihadi after indications of Islamist radicalisation emerged in 2015.

Mr Molins said three people were being held in police custody, and that Belgacem’s choice of target and evidence that he had been radicalised justified launching a terrorism investigation.

Research has shown that more than half of European Isis fighters have a criminal past, with recruiters deliberately targeting violent criminals and gang members looking for redemption and a licence to kill in the name of jihad.

​Like many other Islamists, Belgacem is believed to have been radicalised in prison and was put under surveillance after being freed, although it was unclear when monitoring stopped.

Prosecutors said no evidence of extremism was uncovered in a search of his home, which was among scores raided in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks.

Belgacem’s first attack came at 6.50am (5.50am GMT) on Saturday morning, when he was stopped for speeding by a police patrol in the northern Paris suburb of Garges-les-Gonesse.

The national police information office said he was showing officers identification papers when he pulled put a pellet gun and opened fire, hitting one police officer in the face.

They fired back but Belgacem managed to flee in a Renault Clio, which he dumped to hijack a woman’s Citroen Picasso after making threats in a bar in Vitry.

The stolen vehicle was later found at Paris Orly Airport – but not until Belgacem had been shot dead in the attempted attack.

Belgacem attempted to steal a Famas assault rifle from a female soldier on a counter-terror patrol before being killed, Mr Le Roux said.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said the air force member was thrown to the ground during the assault, adding: “The two other airmen in the patrol opened fire to protect their comrade and protect nearby members of the public.

“They reacted with great professionalism and remarkable composure.”

French interior minister Bruno Le Roux and defence minister Jean-Yves le Drian answer questions at Paris Orly Airport (AP)

Francois Hollande, the French President, hailed the courage and efficiency of police confronted with “assaults committed by a particularly dangerous” individual.

Terrorism prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attack, which comes after a series of Isis-inspired atrocities across France.

No one else was injured in the airport attack at 8.30am local time (7.30am GMT), which triggered a red alert sent locally via the French government’s Saip terror warning system.

“We were waiting in line to check in for a flight to Tel Aviv when we heard three or four gunshots nearby,” 54-year-old Franck Lecam told AFP.

“There were police, emergency services, soldiers running in all directions.”

Another witness said Belgacem held the soldier by her neck while struggling with his other arm to get hold of her gun.

A photograph showed him lying dead on the floor outside a bakery chain, wearing black trousers and a white shirt.

The airport was evacuated as security operations continued, with France's national police urging people not to cross the security perimeter.

Bomb squads and armed police were sent into the building to sweep for explosives but none were found.

Passengers evacuated from Paris Orly airport on 18 March (AP)

A notice was posted on the Paris airports authority website urging passengers not to travel to Orly, with diversions and delays expected.

Air traffic was suspended at Orly airport’s south and west terminals as operations continued, but restrictions were lifted on Saturday afternoon.

The attacked soldier was part of Operation Sentinel – a security initiative seeing troops deployed in combat uniforms around high profile sites including the Eiffel Tower since the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

It was the fourth time that troops in the 7,500-strong force have been attacked.

In February, a man wielding a machete attacked four soldiers patrolling at Le Louvre, a year after three petrol members were wounded by a man armed with a knife outside a Jewish community centre in Nice.

In January 2016, a man rammed his car into four soldiers guarding a mosque in the southeastern city of Valence.

France remains on high alert following a string of terror attacks directed and inspired by Isis, which has directed its followers to carry out opportunistic attacks on security forces and civilians in Europe.

A parcel bomb believed to have been sent by Greek anarchists exploded at the International Monetary Fund’s offices in Paris on Thursday, on the same day a student opened fire at a school in Grasse.

Ministers said the latest attack showed the importance of France’s ongoing state of emergency, which has been extended several times despite human rights concerns raised by the UN.

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