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France points to Islamist terrorism in deadly attack on gas factory

Suspects assaulted the facility in southern France, setting off several small explosives, according to witnesses. One suspect is in custody.

Laurent Cipriani/AP
Investigating police officers work outside the plant where an attack took place, Friday in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, southeast of Lyon, France.

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French officials have launched a terrorism investigation after an attack on a gas factory in southeastern France this morning left one dead and several wounded. The assault comes nearly six months after Islamist gunmen shot their way into the offices of a satirical newspaper in Paris, increasing concerns over terrorism on French soil.

Friday’s incident occurred around 10 a.m., when reports indicate that two suspects allegedly rammed their way into the US-owned Air Products gas factory outside of Lyon, in southeastern France, reports Agence France-Presse. They set off several small explosions, according to witness accounts.

Officials found a decapitated body and head, which was covered in Arabic writing, near the factory, but it is unclear if the corpse was transported to the site or the mutilation took place during the attack. There are also reports of a flag with Arabic writing found at the scene.

One suspect is now in custody, according to the Guardian. AFP reports that France's Interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, says the suspect has links to the Salafist movement.

The BBC, meanwhile, reports that the suspect who has been caught had attracted the attention of law enforcement officials in the past.

Speaking from the scene, France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the suspect in custody has been under investigation between 2006 and 2008. Mr. Cazeneuve said the identity of the suspect was yet to be confirmed but that he was thought to be Yacine Sali.

"This person was under investigation for radicalisation but this investigation was not renewed in 2008. He had no police record," Mr Cazeneuve said.

President François Hollande said in a statement from Brussels that  “we have no doubt the attack was intended to explode the building. It bears the hallmarks of a terrorist attack.” He indicated that he planned to return to France immediately.

If confirmed as a terrorist attack, it will be the second major incident in France so far this year. Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris in January at the offices of a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and at a small Jewish grocery store. In April, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that at least five attacks had been thwarted since the beginning of the year. 

France is one of Europe’s biggest suppliers of foreign fighters to places like Syria and Iraq, both strongholds for the self-described terror group Islamic State. According to data from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, an estimated 1,200 French fighters have been recruited to fight abroad so far.

In response, efforts are growing across Europe to halt so-called “home-grown” terrorism, when locals become radicalized, oftentimes online, and try to carry out attacks, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Through sermons and online advertising, from TV studios to family kitchens to psychiatrists’ couches, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are scrambling to stem the tide of young Europeans volunteering to fight with Islamic State (known as both IS and ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, or to wreak havoc at home.

But it’s no easy task. Europeans of various backgrounds have been drawn into terrorist activities abroad – whether physically or psychologically.

Most European governments have decided that “prevention is better than cure,” but only after disasters. The Dutch government launched a slew of counterradicalization programs after an Islamist militant shot and stabbed Theo van Gogh to death as the filmmaker rode his bicycle to work in 2004.

The British authorities set up their own preventive scheme in the wake of suicide bombings in July 2005 that killed 52 people. The French government launched an anti-jihad website at the end of January.

Though Europe’s security services clearly have a key role to play in preventing Islamic-inspired terrorism, they are often overwhelmed by the challenge: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says nearly 3,000 potential French jihadis need constant surveillance but the General Directorate for Internal Security has only 3,800 agents. The government has promised to bolster the security services, adding 1,100 positions over the next three years.

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