The gunman authorities believe killed three people at a Strasbourg Christmas market was shot dead in a firefight with police Thursday after a two-day manhunt.
Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year-old Islamist who was radicalized in prison, was found by a police unit in the Neudorf neighborhood of Strasbourg at about 9pm local time.
Chekatt opened fire on the officers as they tried to arrest him. They returned fire, killing him, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told reporters.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the work of security forces and pledged that the country’s “commitment against terrorism is total,” while Strasbourg mayor Roland Ries said he hoped the arrest would allow life to return to normal in the eastern city.
“With the death of this terrorist … citizens like me are relieved,” he said.
Chekatt had a string of 27 criminal convictions for violence and theft in France, Switzerland and Germany, and, like many perpetrators behind recent jihadist attacks in Europe, was radicalized behind bars.
He was on a French government watchlist — known as the “Fiche S” — for radicals who pose a potential terror threat.
Chekatt launched his attack on Strasbourg’s famous festive market Tuesday evening following a failed bid by French police to arrest him over a robbery investigation earlier that day. According to French prosecutors, he yelled “Allahu akbar” as he opened fire into the crowd and stabbed passersby, before fleeing in a taxi.
Chekatt had told the taxi driver he had carried out the attacks to avenge his “brothers in Syria,” France’s BFM TV reported, citing police sources. French investigators said the target, which reopened Friday, could have been chosen for its religious significance.
Alongside the three fatalities, another 12 people were wounded, three of whom are fighting for their lives, French officials said. Prosecutors are treating the case as a terror investigation, and have arrested five others — Chekatt’s parents, two of his brothers, and an associate.
ISIS later claimed via its Amaq media wing that Chekatt was one of its supporters and had acted in response to a directive for followers to carry out attacks in the West. It offered no evidence in support of the claim.
The attack was the latest in a string of Islamist atrocities on French soil in recent years, that has killed more than 240 people since the Charlie Hebdo attack of January 2015.
Strasbourg has a heightened level of Islamist radicalization for a city of its size, said Kit Nicholl, a security analyst for IHS Markit.
Its Christmas market was the target of a failed al Qaeda-linked plot in 2000, one of the attackers in the November 2015 Paris attacks came from the city, and a thwarted ISIS plot in 2016 also involved a Strasbourg cell.
But despite the heightened risk during the holiday period, amid fears that jihadists will target Christmas markets as they have in Berlin and now Strasbourg, the overall terror threat level across Europe has dropped in 2018, Nicholl said.
The collapse of the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria had harmed the terror group’s power to direct attacks in Europe, and the threat of returning foreign fighters launching large-scale coordinated attacks had so far failed to materialize.
Cover image: French police officers and forensics search for evidences at the site where Cherif Chekatt, the alleged gunman who had been on the run since allegedly killing three people at Strasbourg's popular Christmas market, has been shot dead by police on December 13, 2018. (SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images)