France endures deadly attacks, but can't decide if they're terrorism

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Marco Werman: You might have also heard about attacks on police in France this weekend. Near the city of Tours, a man stabbed three officers at a police station before he was shot and killed. The man had reportedly been shouting “œAllahu Akbar,” or “œGod is great” in Arabic. There was another attack as well and we’ll get to that one in a moment. I spoke with Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris about all of this. She’s the France editor for Newsweek Europe and I asked her what the police know about motive in the first attack near Tours.


Anne-Elisabeth Moutet: In the case of the attack in Tours, we know that there are links with the Islamic State and that the perpetrator, who’s a French convert to Islam who was born in Burundi, was found in possession of materials from ISIS, Islamic stuff on his computer, and very obviously he had been converted and had been preaching extremist Islam with his friends and family, and there’s no doubt that he was acting as part of the impulse that was given this weekend and earlier, saying “œWe will explode France.” There’s a video that came out on Youtube that said “œWe will make France explode.”


Werman: So that man is dead, but apparently French officials are investigating the Burundi connection. What do they think they’ll find there?


Moutet: Well, they will probably find that the connection is not so much in Burundi as it is with disenfranchised young men who are Burundi extractions, now French citizens, and gather and get converted to Islam, they’re not happy of the economic situation in France, they’re not happy about any number of things and they find a kind of absolute ideal, however perverted, in radical Islam and they are the main prey for those groups either to attract them to fight in Syria or increasingly to suggest to them to start fighting the representatives of the police or the authorities in Western countries, especially France.


Werman: Just yesterday in the city Dijon, police say a driver ran down 13 pedestrians in the city. No connection in the attack in Tours except also this driver was apparently shouting “œAllahu Akbar,” right?


Moutet: Yes, he was. The investigating magistrate spoke today and she said “œThis is not a terrorist attack,” and I would dispute what she says, and lots of commenters on newspaper websites are now disputing what she says because it is a terrorist attack but it is not linked to the Islamic State. But it is more part of this feeling that exists among disenfranchised youth who are fascinated by Islam, and the more extreme, the more fascinating to them and they seize the opportunity. So, this man, who’s actually not that young, he’s about 40, he’s been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for ten years, he took meds before the attack, he said to “œCover the time when I’m interrogated by the police,” which in itself, shows premeditation. He said that he wanted to do this for the children of Palestine and the children of Chechnya, and that’s because there’s a kind of atmosphere that’s a mix of understanding of Islam and the use of the internet and the means to be able to propagate enough ideas that people will find an excuse or a pretext in that way. But he’s not somebody from an organized network.


Werman: As for the attack in Dijon, despite the debate as to whether it was Islamist terror or not, one thing has to be underscored and that is the man apparently had a history of mental illness, the man behind the wheel of that car, and with the mental illness, there is a parallel between that man and the man in New York who shot and killed two of that city’s police at point blank range. Are people in France finding it difficult to assign the motivation of this crime to mental illness when, on the surface, it seems to be about Islam versus the West?


Moutet: In both cases, it’s certainly somebody who’s got a mental illness. But word is that mental illness manifests itself and it manifests itself in a pretext because they’ve seen so much violence which comes from radical Islam. So, no it’s not ordered, commissioned by Islamic terrorist groups, but at the same time, it’s part of an atmosphere in which we see beheadings on Youtube and we hear about the war that’s being preached against the West. So, yes and no.


Werman: Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, the France editor for Newsweek Europe. Thank you very much.


Moutet: Thank you.