The gunman who shot dead a policeman in central Paris less than 72 hours before France’s presidential election had served more than 12 years in prison for shooting at police officers and was being investigated by intelligence services, it has emerged.
Karim Cheurfi, 39, drove up to a police van on the Champs Elysées at about 9pm on Thursday, got out and shot dead the driver with two bullets to the head, then opened fire at police on the pavement, seriously wounding two, the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said on Friday.
He was shot dead by police while trying to flee on foot after the attack, which was claimed unusually quickly by the Islamic State propaganda agency Amaq. It said the attacker was “one of Islamic State’s fighters”.
A note defending Isis was found near his body, Molins said. The police officer killed was named as Xavier Jugelé, who joined the Paris police force in 2010 from the gendarmerie.
Authorities had long feared bloodshed in the run-up to polling day, and observers speculated that the attack could bring the issues of security and radical Islam to the forefront of voters’ concerns as they prepare to vote in Sunday’s first round.
Molins said Cheurfi, who was born in 1977 in Livry-Gargan, a suburb north-east of Paris, had been jailed four times between 2001 and 2014 for attempted murder, violence and robbery.
He was last arrested in February after reports he had been talking about assaulting police. Knives and masks were found at his home but were not considered sufficient evidence to detain him further and he was released, Molins said.
“At that stage, no link with the radical Islamist movement was apparent,” the Paris prosecutor said. “Nothing justified further investigations by my office.”
He said a pump-action shotgun and knives had been found in the vehicle used in the Champs-Elysées attack and police were investigating how the attacker obtained his Kalashnikov.
Cheurfi had previously been convicted of three attempted murders – two against police officers – after an incident in 2001. He shot at one policeman and a civilian after a car chase and while in custody, grabbed another officer’s gun and fired at him.
Sentenced to 20 years, he won a 2005 appeal and left prison in 2013. In July 2014, he was sentenced to four years for violent robbery but was released the following year.
Neighbours in the eastern suburb of Chelles, where Cheurfi lived with his mother, described him as someone “who had lost all reason” and was “psychologically very damaged”, and said he had never been seen at the local mosque.
“He hated the police and France,” a man called Abdel told AFP, saying he may have been radicalised in prison but seemed an unlikely recruit to Isis.
Police searched Cheurfi’s family home on Friday. Le Parisien and other media reported that the address matched that of the owner of the car used in the attack, an Audi 80.
The Isis statement named the attacker as Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki, or “the Belgian”, raising initial concerns that a second attacker could be on the loose since Cheurfi was registered as a French national.
French authorities said on Friday a citizen of Belgium was thought to have travelled to France on Thursday and had turned himself in to police in Antwerp where he had been arrested.
A source close to the French investigation said the 35-year-old Belgian man, described as “very dangerous”, had been sought by his country’s police as part of a separate investigation.
Hours before the Paris assault, Belgian police reportedly found weapons, balaclavas and a ticket for a train to France departing on Thursday morning. But the Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, said this was “certainly not the guy who committed the crime yesterday”.
In France, three people known to Cheurfi were arrested during overnight raids in the eastern suburbs of Paris and were being questioned by anti-terror police, judicial sources said.
The US president, Donald Trump, tweeted on Friday that the attack would have a “big effect” on the French elections, adding: “The people of France will not take much more of this.”
But the prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said the government had reviewed its extensive election security measures and was “fully mobilised” in the wake of the attack. He appealed for national unity and for people “not to succumb to fear”.
Cazeneuve said after a meeting of France’s security council on Friday: “Barbarity and cowardice struck Paris last night, as they also recently struck elsewhere in Europe in Berlin, Stockholm, in London. The whole of Europe is targeted, because it represents the values and ideals of peace”.
He said more than 50,000 police and gendarmes and 7,000 soldiers would be on duty for Sunday’s first-round vote in the two-stage election, and nothing could be allowed to “hamper this democratic moment”.
France has been under a state of emergency for nearly 18 months, with more than 230 people killed in jihadi attacks over the past two years.
Charlie Hebdo magazine was struck in January 2015, while gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people at the Bataclan concert hall, Stade de France and in bars and restaurants in Paris that November. In July 2016, a truck attack in Nice left 86 people dead.
Thursday’s deadly attack was the first in the country since a priest was killed last July, but fits a recent pattern in France of attacks on soldiers providing security at prominent locations around Paris, including at the Louvre museum in February and Orly airport last month.
Witnesses to the attack described chaotic scenes on the Champs Elysées, Paris’s best-known avenue. “We had to hide our customers in the basement,” said Choukri Chouanine, manager of a restaurant near the site of the shooting. A German tourist was slightly wounded.
The two police officers injured in the attack are out of danger, the interior ministry spokesman, Pierre-Henry Brandet, said, and were visited in hospital by the outgoing president, François Hollande, and senior government officials.
A national police spokesman, Jerome Bonet, said there were thousands of people on the Champs Elysées when the gunman opened fire and that the rapid response of officers who shot and killed him avoided possible “carnage”.
The Champs Élysées reopened on Friday, having been sealed off for much of Thursday night as police ordered tourists back into hotels and blocked people from approaching the scene. Emergency vehicles blocked access and metro stations were closed.