Paris meat cleaver attacker’s identity in doubt

There was confusion Monday over the identity of the man who injured two people in a meat cleaver attack in Paris last week, which was condemned by the French government as an act of “Islamist terrorism”.

Investigators said the assailant had identified himself as Hassan A., an 18-year-old born in the Pakistani town of Mandi Bahauddin.

It appears he entered France three years ago, and was not known to police and not known to have ever displayed signs of supporting radical Islam.

But when looking through his mobile phone, investigators found a photo of an identity document that appears to suggest Hassan A. is actually called Zaheer Hassan Mehmood, aged 25, a source close to the investigation told AFP.

It’s under that identity that he appeared in a video filmed before the Friday attack, in which he said he was avenging the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed by satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The magazine was the scene of a massacre by Islamist gunmen in January 2015.

The attacker seriously injured two employees of a TV production agency, whose offices are on the same block that used to house Charlie Hebdo. They are now in stable condition, officials said. 

He told investigators he thought he was targeting employees of Charlie Hebdo, but did not realise they had since moved to a new location that is kept secret because of security risks.

A man claiming to be the suspect’s father, Arshad Mehmood, told AFP by telephone from Mandi Bahauddin that he was “very happy with what my son has done.”

“My son Zaheer Hassan went to France two years ago,” he said. 

“He protected the honour of the prophet, peace be upon him, by attacking those who have printed things about our prophet,” he said. “The entire village has come to congratulate me.”

“I hope the government can help in getting my son home. He should not be harmed in any way,” he added.

– ‘Threat still persists’ –

In his two-minute video, the attacker did not claim to act on behalf of any organisation.

He remained in custody Monday, along with five others who investigators said were being held to learn more about the suspect’s “environment,” though police believe he acted alone.

The five include three former flatmates of the attacker, his younger brother, and an acquaintance.

Five more people have been released from custody, including a man identified as Youssef, who claimed he was arrested while trying to stop the attack.

“I wanted to be a hero, I ended up behind bars,” he told TF1 television Sunday.

The attack came three weeks into a trial of suspected accomplices of the authors of the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket, which also saw a policewoman gunned down in the street.

Seventeen people were killed in the three-day spree that heralded a wave of Islamist violence in France that has so far claimed 258 lives.

“Of course we, Charlie Hebdo, are on the front line again,” Richard Malka, a lawyer for the satirical weekly, said on the margins of the trial.

French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile told Monday’s cabinet meeting that “the terrorist threat still persists in our country,” said government spokesman Gabriel Attal.

Later, on a trip to Lithuania, he told reporters that “more than 32 attacks” had been foiled over three years by France’s intelligence services and security forces.

The head of the presidency’s anti-terror task force, Laurent Nunez, told AFP on Sunday that detection techniques had improved, but acknowledged that “we still need to tighten the net”.

by Alexandre HIELARD