The assault at a church in the south of France left at least three people dead. Local officials said it bore similarities to the killing of a schoolteacher that has shaken the country.
Outside the Notre-Dame basilica in Nice, France, on Thursday. The attack at the church comes just weeks after the beheading of a teacher near Paris.
PARIS — Less than two weeks after the beheading of a French schoolteacher, an assailant carrying a knife entered the towering neo-Gothic basilica in the southern city of Nice early Thursday and killed three people, further inflaming tensions in a country already on edge and leading the authorities to increase the terrorism threat level.
Officials in Nice described the attack as Islamist terrorism, and it was quickly followed by a flurry of reports of other incidents — including one that involved a knife-wielding assailant outside a French consulate in Saudi Arabia — though it was not immediately clear whether the events were coordinated.
“Very clearly it is France that is attacked,” President Emmanuel Macron said from Nice, calling the act an “Islamist terrorist attack” and adding that “at the same time, one of our consular sites in Jeddah was attacked.”
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, told reporters on Thursday that a suspect, who has not been identified, was arrested after being shot and wounded by the police. The suspect “kept repeating Allahu akbar in front of us even though he was sedated,” Mr. Estrosi said, adding this left “no doubt” about the motivation behind the attack.
“There is a woman who quite clearly was attacked with the same modus operandi as Samuel Paty,” the Nice mayor, Mr. Estrosi, told BFM TV, referring to the teacher who was killed, suggesting that the victim might have also been decapitated.
President Emmanuel Macron of France called a knife attack that killed three people at Notre-Dame basilica in Nice Thursday an “Islamist terrorist attack.”CreditCredit…Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Prime Minister Jean Castex quickly announced that the authorities were placing France on its highest terrorism threat level, with heightened security at places of worship, and Mr. Macron said that military patrols around the country — a common sight over the past few years — would be more than doubled from 3,000 troops to 7,000.
Officials across the political spectrum condemned the attack, as did French Muslim representatives.
The killings in Nice come at an extremely fraught moment for France, which is still shaken by the beheading of the teacher, Mr. Paty, and is about to enter a monthlong lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Since Mr. Paty’s killing by a young Muslim man offended that the teacher had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech, the French authorities have undertaken a broad crackdown against Muslim extremists in France, conducting dozens of raids, temporarily closing a major mosque and disbanding a Muslim aid group that the authorities have accused of “advocating radical Islam” and hate speech.
Those measures have found widespread support in a nation still traumatized by Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in recent years — including two that killed a total of more than 200 people.
“If we are attacked once more it is because of the values that are ours,” Mr. Macron said, including freedom of worship and freedom of expression. “We will not yield anything.”
“Enough is enough,” said Mr. Estrosi, the Nice mayor. “It is now time for France to exempt itself from peacetime laws to permanently annihilate Islamofascism from our territory.”
Residents gathered near the church on Thursday.Credit…Sebastien Nogier/EPA, via Shutterstock
Gilles Kepel, an expert on Islam who has advised Mr. Macron on religious issues, said the attack in Nice on Thursday had targeted a pillar of France’s society.
“Earlier this month, the target was a teacher, a symbolic figure of the French Republic,” Mr. Kepel said of Mr. Paty’s beheading. “In Nice, the attack occurred in a church, which represents a more ancient component of France’s identity — Christianity.”
Mr. Kepel said the date of the attack, on Mawlid Al-Nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, carried special resonance.
Several leaders of Muslim countries, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, have denounced France’s staunch defense of secularism and free speech.
On Thursday French officials were particularly outraged by a comments made after the attack on Twitter by Mahathir Mohamad, a former Malaysian prime minister, who argued that Muslims had a right to “kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” The French government quickly asked Twitter to suspend Mr. Mahathir’s account for inciting hatred and violence. The post was later removed.
“As France firmly defends its values, some radicalized individuals may think, ‘You want to attack our sanctities, we are going to attack yours,’” Mr. Kepel said.
“The targets seem unlimited, and so can be those willing to carry attacks against them,” he added. “That’s what makes it so hard for security services to spot and stop them.”
Mr. Macron has vowed to crack down on what he called “Islamist separatism” with a range of measures aimed at countering extremism in the Muslim community, including stringent limits on home-schooling and increasing scrutiny of religious schools, making associations that solicit public funds sign a “charter” on secularism, and phasing out the widespread practice of bringing over foreign imams to work in France while investing in home-based training of imams.
After the attack in Nice, at the city’s largest church, Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, France’s antiterrorism prosecutor said that the office had opened an investigation into terrorism-related offenses.
Two of the victims were killed in the church, while a third died after taking refuge in a nearby bar, the mayor said.
Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, asked in a Twitter post that French Muslims cancel all festivities celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, “as a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones.”
Forensics officers outside the basilica on Thursday.Credit…Pool photo by Eric Gaillard
At the French consulate in the Saudi city of Jeddah, a suspect was quickly arrested after a separate knife attack that wounded a security guard, who was hospitalized. And in France, in a sign of the heightened security level, the attack in Nice was followed by a flurry of other incidents.
At least one of them seemed directly inspired by the attack in Nice. In Sartrouville, a town northwest of Paris, a man was arrested near a church after being flagged by local residents, according to the police. The local authorities said that the man’s father had called the police after his son left wanting to “do the same as in Nice.”
It was not immediately clear whether the other incidents were connected to the attack in Nice.
In the southern city of Avignon, a man who had threatened bystanders with a handgun was shot and killed by the police. He had a psychiatric history and was incoherent, according to the Agence France-Presse.
In the central city of Lyon, a man carrying a long knife was arrested at a train station, according to the local authorities. Pierre Oliver, the mayor of the Second Arrondissement in Lyon, said the police had “prevented a new tragedy.” According to the newspaper Le Figaro, the man, an Afghan born in 1994, was known to French intelligence services for “radical Islamism.”
In recent years, France has experienced several attacks like those carried out on Thursday. The country faced a string of mass-casualty attacks in 2015 and 2016 by organized networks, but the most recent assaults have more often been isolated acts carried out by lone assailants living in France, which can be harder to prevent.
None of the assailants in two previous attacks this fall, including a stabbing in September near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo — the satirical newspaper that printed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad — were known to the authorities.
In 2016, Nice was traumatized by one of France’s worst terrorist attacks, when a Tunisian man drove a 19-ton refrigeration truck through crowds that had gathered on the city’s main seaside promenade to watch fireworks, killing 86.
Lawmakers at the National Assembly in Paris observed a minute of silence after hearing of the attack in Nice.Credit…Bertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The attack in Nice on Thursday came just hours before France is scheduled to go back on a one-month lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has flared dangerously around Europe over the past weeks with a surge of cases and hospitalizations.
Officials did not identify the victims, but Mr. Estrosi, the mayor, said one was the sacristan of the church. Church bells around France rang out on Thursday afternoon to honor the victims.
Hugo Micheron, a researcher at Princeton University who has studied radicalization in French prisons and suburbs, said the recent spate of attacks occurred at a time when the Islamic State had lost its territorial footprint, but had managed to expand its influence.
“The number of attacks is increasing at a time when jihadist movements are under the radar,” he said. “The goal is not to make a lot of victims, but rather to reach France at its heart, to traumatize it.”
Mr. Micheron added that churches were “quite usual targets” for Islamist assailants in Europe and elsewhere. Last year, attackers targeted three churches and three malls in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing 267 people.
In 2016, the Rev. Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest, was celebrating Mass in Normandy when two men with knives entered his small church and slit his throat. The Islamic State took responsibility for the killing of Father Hamel, shocking France just weeks after the truck attack in Nice.
Later that year, two radicalized women tried to ignite a car loaded with gas cylinders near the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in the name of the Islamic State, shedding a light on the role of female jihadists in homegrown terrorism. And a man is currently on trial in France over a failed plot to attack a church in Villejuif, a Parisian suburb, that left one woman dead in 2015.
Megan Specia contributed reporting from London and Constant Méheut from Paris.