Deadly Knife Attack in France Is Terrorism, Officials in Nice Say

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.

Jean-François Ricard, France’s top antiterrorism prosecutor, said at a news conference in Nice that the suspect, who was carrying a document from the Italian Red Cross, had been identified as a Tunisian man born in 1999. Mr. Ricard said he had arrived in Italy on the island of Lampedusa on Sept. 20, and disembarked in the Italian port of Bari on Oct. 9.

Surveillance camera footage placed him at the main train station in Nice early on Thursday morning, Mr. Ricard said, where he is seen turning his jacket inside out and changing shoes before making his way to the church.

One of the victims, a 60-year old woman, had her throat cut so deeply that it was akin to a decapitation, Mr. Ricard said. Another victim, a 55-year-old man who was the church’s sacristan, also had serious throat wounds.

A third victim, a 44-year-old woman, escaped the basilica but died of her wounds shortly afterward, Mr. Ricard said. The suspect, who is still hospitalized with serious wounds, is unknown to French police and intelligence services, Mr. Ricard said.

Prime Minister Jean Castex 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.

“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.”

“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 out 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.

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.”

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.”

Another incident appeared unrelated. In the southern city of Avignon, a man who had threatened bystanders with a handgun was shot and killed by the police. Questions were raised about possible ties to the attack in Nice, but a local prosecutor told Mediapart, an investigative news site, that the attacker, who had threatened a shopkeeper of North African descent, was an “unbalanced” man with ties to a far-right group.

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.

Church bells around France rang out in the afternoon to honor the victims.

Hugo Micheron, a researcher at Princeton University who has studied radicalization in French prisons and suburbs, said that churches were “quite usual targets” for Islamist assailants in Europe and elsewhere.

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.

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