“Again,” they were saying in Lyon on Saturday, with an air of incredulity. “It’s happened again.”
Just six months after the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery shop,France finds itself struggling to comprehend another atrocity in its midst. The severed head of a businessman hung on a factory gate on Friday brought the horror of Isis-style beheadings in Syria, Libya and Iraq to a quiet corner of the Rhône-Alpes region.
Yassin Salhi, a truck driver with a history of radical Islamic ties, is in custody in Lyon, after allegedly murdering his employer, Hervé Cornara, and crashing a truck into a US-owned chemical warehouse. He isn’t speaking to investigators.
One of the other three suspects detained has been released. Paris prosecutor’s office spokeswoman Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre said investigators have not yet established a motive or any link with Islamist terrorist groups.
In the centre of Lyon, a Unesco-listed city on the Rhône, there was disbelief that such a grotesque act of terrorism could have been visited on the region. Newspapers carried anguished editorials discussing how France should confront the first decapitation as an act of terrorism on its own soil.
“We are not used to seeing this here,” read a headline in Le Progrès. And yet, despite the shockingly barbaric nature of what happened, some things were very familiar about Friday’s attack centred on a chemical plant some 40km (25 miles) from the city centre. As with previous attacks in Europe, Salhi had crossed the radar of the intelligence services. A Salafi – a follower of the radical strain of Islamregularly linked to extremism – the 35-year-old had been on a watchlist between 2006 and 2008.
In Saint-Priest, a suburb of Lyon, where he had lived for the past six months in a nondescript flat in a four-storey block, neighbours described him as a typical member of the community who liked to play football in the street with his three children. “They are a very normal family,” said a neighbour who gave her name as Brigitte. “I only talked with madame; he didn’t say hello or goodbye,” the 46-year-old housewife told Reuters.
But it now appears that Salhi, who was born in France to immigrant parents, was radicalised before he arrived in Lyon. In the eastern town of Besançon, where he lived for several years, he fell in with a fervently Islamist crowd. A former friend said he started talking about Islamic State “but only to ask my opinion, not to praise them”.
Salhi lost weight, grew a beard and started spending time with younger men, mainly teenagers, dressed in khaki and black. They would spend hours discussing Mali, where French troops were stationed on peacekeeping duties. One neighbour became so worried at the change in Salhi she called the police to warn that he was being radicalised.
This weekend the hunt was on for those who had turned a man whom a former colleague recalled as “always gentle and calm” into a killer. According to his security services file, Salhi had attended a radical mosque in Lyon in 2006. There is speculation among some Muslims in the city that he had fallen under the influence of “Grand Ali”, an extremist imam of mythical status in the region.
If such a character exists, he is not short of recruits. The Rhône region is considered by terrorism experts to be one of France’s top five breeding grounds for radicalisation. Several Muslim men told the Observer that a small group of Salafis had been attempting a “land grab” on the city’s mosques in the past couple of years. “They are trying to take them over,” one man said. “They have targeted four mosques. They are turning people against each other. They are not true Muslims.”
Yesterday Salhi’s neighbours were forced to contemplate the unwelcome attention their suburb had brought. “We do not need this here,” said one woman. “This is only going to create fear.” Around her several people nodded, but most refused to talk. Local people were not so cowed online. Many posted messages expressing disbelief that someone known to the security services was not being monitored more closely.
The authorities estimate that hundreds of French citizens have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, and monitoring those who return is stretching them to breaking point. What hope, experts ask, is there of monitoring the lone wolves who show no indication that they will turn murderous? However, the Lyon attack fits an increasingly familiar pattern. In 2012 a spate of attacks carried out by Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal, resulted in the murders of three soldiers and four people, three of them Jewish children, in the south-west of the country.
In April, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, revealed that five attacks had been thwarted in the country since the Charlie Hebdo attack, including one on a church near Paris when a man armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle was planning to fire on the congregation.
But Friday’s attack marks an alarming new direction. The attempt to blow up a chemicals company may have been clumsy in execution, but it represents a chilling broadening of ambition. This weekend, security at France’s nuclear power plants, electricity substations and other sensitive targets was being stepped up, with thousands of police and soldiers assigned to new protective roles.
Meanwhile, Lyon’s Muslim population fears that the attack will exacerbate racial tensions at a difficult time. France has witnessed a rise in Islamophobic and antisemitic attacks in recent months and the far right has been quick to make political capital out of the tragedy. The Front National attacked the government for doing “nothing” to combat fundamentalist Islam and warned that the country was at risk because of an “immigration invasion”.
It was difficult to square such alarmism with the scene in Lyon yesterday. In the baking sunshine, people enjoyed long lunches. The parks were full of children laughing. And yet the city’s residents know they must ask themselves how, just the day before, a man from one of their suburbs came to decapitate another human being before turning himself into a human bomb.
In a Turkish restaurant on the Rue Pailleron, Jacques sipped a coffee. He was 63 and has lived in Lyon most of his life. Was he concerned by what was happening? He shook his head and repeated what many politicians had said in the previous 24 hours: “We must not give way to fear.” He repeated the phrase several times, rapping his knuckles on the table for emphasis.
Jamie Doward, Lyon, Mathilde Frot, London, 2015, The Observer