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Suspect Reportedly Denies Religious Motivation in Beheading and Factory Attack in France

The man accused of decapitating his boss and causing an explosion last Friday near Lyon reportedly told investigators he "wanted to commit suicide as part of a media stunt."
June 29, 2015, 9:35pm
Imagen por Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters

Yassin Salhi, the man accused of beheading his boss and causing an explosion last Friday at a factory near Lyon in southeast France, has reportedly told investigators that the attack was not motivated by religion.

Salhi was arrested on Friday, and he reportedly confessed the following afternoon to decapitating Hervé Cornara, his employer, and then setting his head on a fence by the Air Products factory in Isère, France. Cornara, 54, was the commercial director of ATC Transport, a delivery company where Salhi had worked as a driver since March. After the beheading, police say Salhi launched his car into the factory, which stocked liquid gas for industrial use, setting off an explosion that wounded two people.

Salhi, a 35-year-old father of three, remains in custody at police anti-terrorism offices in Paris, where he was brought this weekend after being present at a search of his home on Sunday. AFP cited a source close to the case as saying that Salhi, a Muslim, has denied that his religion prompted the attack.

Related: Man Decapitated in France and Islamist Banners Found on Site

A co-worker reportedly described a disagreement between Salhi and his boss two days before the attack, sparked by Salhi knocking over a pallet loaded with computer hardware. A source close to the investigation quoted by Le Monde also mentioned that Salhi's wife had threatened to divorce him, and scolded him for not being religious enough. According to iTélé, Salhi told investigators that he "wanted to commit suicide as part of a media stunt."

In the hours following the attack, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that Salhi had been monitored for radicalization between 2006 and 2008, and again between 2011 and 2014 for his ties to the ultra-conservative Salafist movement within Sunni Islam.

An investigator told Libération that, "Salhi's main objective certainly seemed to be to kill his boss, but, because he had been heavily radicalized for 10 years, he did so in accordance with jihadist imagery."

According to investigators, Salhi took a selfie with his boss's severed head and sent the image via WhatsApp to a French citizen in Syria named "Yunes-Sébastien." Salhi reportedly described this person, who moved to Syria in November 2014, as his "only friend." Local newspaper L'Est Républicain also reported that Salhi became close in the early 2000s to a radical Islamic preacher nicknamed "Grand Ali," an Islamic convert who was suspected of involvement in a terror attack in Indonesia.

Salhi's reported denial of religious motivation is seemingly at odds with several facts in the case. Sources close to the investigation have said Salhi yelled "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) as firemen overpowered him as he attempted to set gas canisters alight in a covered hangar at the factory. Paris public prosecutor François Molins also said on the evening after the attack that black-and-white banners found by the victim's severed head were "covered with the Shahada," the Islamic profession of belief.

Related: Hostage Takers in France Rarely Motivated by Religion or Ideology: Study

Investigators have also been looking into the possibility that Salhi previously traveled to Syria. According to Lib_é_ration, Salhi told an acquaintance that he made a trip to the country to attend a Quranic school in 2010 or 2011, but French intelligence services reportedly had "no evidence" of this journey. Salhi's mother and sister, however, reportedly confirmed that he had gone to Syria in 2009.

The investigators reportedly brought Salhi to his home in Saint-Priest, near Lyon, in order to verify his travels, but they were not able to find his passport, which, according to Le Monde, Salhi said "caught fire during a trip to Morocco."

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls drew criticism from the country's left when he spoke of a "clash of civilizations," after the attack, which he previously characterized as "Islamic terrorism." French President François Hollande, meanwhile, simply called it "terrorism," without any qualifier.

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin

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