‘Gangster-jihadist’: The profile of the Strasbourg terrorist is a familiar one

The profile of the suspect believed to be behind the deadly Strasbourg shooting that left two dead appears to be all too familiar.

'Gangster-jihadist': The profile of the Strasbourg terrorist is a familiar one
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner gives a statement to the press. Photo: AFP

The suspect has been named in French media as Cherif C, 29-years-old. He was born in the city where he opened fire to deadly affect on Tuesday evening. 

Cherif C was well known to the authorities and had been convicted in France and Germany of a number of crimes mostly for theft an violence. He lived in a small apartment in a rundown housing block in the Poteries area of Strasbourg about a 20-minute tram ride from the centre of the French city and its Christmas market

Giving a press conference in Strasbourg on Wednesday French prosecutor Remi Heitz told media that Cherif C had 27 previous convictions, most of which occured in France, but also Germany and Switzerland.

Before the attack on Tuesday, the fugitive was already wanted for armed robbery, according to a source close to the case, while another source said he was linked to an investigation of attempted homicide.

The mayor of Strasbourg Roland Ries said the suspect had “a long criminal history” while Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said he had “served his sentences”.

Reports in Germany say he served a prison sentence there until 2017 for aggravated robbery, after which he was expelled to France.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the shooting, French gendarmes visited the Strasbourg home of Cherif C to arrest him over his suspected role in a bank robbery and attempted murder, but he was missing.

His presumed accomplices had all been rounded up by police.

But the suspect didn't just have a criminal past, he was also known to intelligence services for his links to extremist Islam.

In 2016 he was flagged by anti-terrorist services, according to a source close to the investigation.

“The attacker, who was on the S list (of extremists watched by police), is actively being hunted by security forces,” local officials said in a statement.

He had been reported by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) intelligence agency during a visit to prison where he was noted for violence and religious proselytism, according to the source.

It is believed he had close links to radical Islamist groups in the Meinau neighbourhood of Strasbourg.

The job of French investigators is now to determine what drove Cherif C to open fire at the city's Christmas market. 

The shooting appears at first sight to be another sickening terror attack carried out at a location French authorities had long feared could be targeted by terrorists, but the government and police had initially kept an open mind about the shooter's motives.

The alternative theory is that the shooter may just have cracked after realising his accomplices had all been rounded up and he was likely heading back to prison for another spell behind bars.

However speaking to the media on Wednesday French prosecutor Remy Heitz confirmed the shooting was being treated as a terrorist attack.

“Terrorism has once again struck France,” he said, adding that the Cherif C was heard by witnesses shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he went on his rampage.

France's anti-terrorist force have been placed in charge of the investigation.

The path of Cherif C from career criminal to jihadist is a familiar one.

In recent years the profiles of many of those who have carried out terror attacks in France were similar.

For example Karim Cheurfi, the gunman who killed a policeman before France’s presidential election had served more than 12 years in prison for shooting at police officers. He had been jailed four times between 2001 and 2014 for attempted murder, violence and robbery.

Ziyed Ben Belgacem, who was shot dead at Paris Orly airport after trying to grab a soldiers gun to shoot others had a lengthy criminal history of violence, robbery and drug offences 

Authorities in Belgium have dubbed these criminals turned terrorists “gangster jihadists” and are concerned about a huge rise in their number.

Those same concerns have long been held in France. 

Some 25,000 people are currently on the “S” extremism watchlist, 9,700 of them for radicalism “linked mainly to Islamist terror movements,” according to the interior ministry.

There are also scores of people locked up in French prisons for various terror related offences. The fact many are due to be released in the coming years is why French authorities keen insisting the terror threat will remain for at least a generation.


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US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.