The knife-wielding man accused of attacking three French soldiers Tuesday in the southern city of Nice reportedly attempted to travel to Turkey recently, a popular transit point for militants on their way to Syria. Police questioned the man Wednesday, but he remained silent throughout the interrogation, according to AFP.
The suspected attacker injured two soldiers who were patrolling outside a building that houses the Jewish Consistory of Nice, Radio Shalom, and a Jewish community organization. The patrol was part of "Vigipirate," the French national security alert system triggered in December after a string of seemingly religious-motivated attacks against civilians.
In a bizarre twist, the alleged Nice attacker, Moussa Coulibaly, shares the last name of Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who attacked a Kosher supermarket in Paris on January 9, leading to the death of four hostages. The two men are apparently not linked to each other. Nice's Deputy Mayor Philippe Pradal said Moussa Coulibaly was arrested shortly after the stabbing and had two knives in his possession, though only one was used during the attack.
Coulibaly, who is originally from the Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, had been on the radar of French police for more than a decade. He was convicted six times between 2003 and 2012 on charges of theft, drug use, and verbally abusing a police officer. French daily Le Monde reported that Coulibaly was fined and handed suspended sentences for the offenses, which took place in the northeastern city of Mulhouse.
Coulibaly's acquaintances told French daily Le Parisien that he was a "very shy, calm" individual, and that "he didn't speak much." According to Le Parisien, he recently began frequenting a mosque in Trappes, on the outskirts of Paris.
In 2012, Coulibaly apparently tried put his criminal past behind him and opened a shop that sold auto parts in Mantes-la-Jolie, according to Nice Matin. At the time, he lived in Val Fourré — a housing project in Mantes-la-Jolie.
Coulibaly reportedly started to show signs of radicalization in December. He became overtly hostile toward women, and confronted a member of his boxing club because he did not like the man shaving naked in the men's locker rooms — an anecdote reported by various French media outlets.
On December 18, the French Office of Territorial Intelligence (SDRT) reported Coulibaly to the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) for "aggressive proselytizing." Despite continued monitoring by the SDRT, no wiretap warrant was issued for Coulibaly.
Coulibaly dropped off the radar at the start of 2015, resurfacing in Corsica on January 28, in the northern coastal town of Ajaccio. According toNice Matin, he may have stopped briefly in Nice on January 25 and 26 on his way to Corsica.
In Corsica, Coulibaly tried to buy a one-way ticket to the Turkish capital Ankara, but his travel agent that told him it would be cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket to Istanbul. Coulibaly agreed but requested two stopovers — one in Nice, the other in Rome.
According to Le Monde, the travel agent, intrigued by Coulibaly's unusual itinerary, reported him to French airline Air France, which in turn alerted the border police and the DGSI. French intelligence services asked their Turkish counterparts to stop Coulibaly at the border and send him back to France.
After he landed in Istanbul on January 29, Coulibaly was immediately sent back to Nice, where he was questioned by SDRT officers. Coulibaly told them he was traveling to Turkey as a tourist. French weekly L'Express reported that, after telling security forces he wanted to return to Corsica, Coulibaly checked in at the Azurea Hotel near the Nice train station.
He remained under surveillance throughout his stay on the French Riviera. According to a source quoted in Le Monde, he wandered the city "drinking, asking for cigarettes in the street, and chatting with the homeless."
On February 3, in the middle of the afternoon, Coulibaly allegedly attacked the soldiers outside the Jewish cultural center, in the heart of Nice.
Following the attack, Eric Ciotti, a member of the right-wing UMP party who also heads up the Parliamentary Investigating Commission on the Monitoring of Jihadists, tweeted that, "Once again, the Republic has come under attack. A firm response is required."
Christian Estrosi, the right-wing mayor of Nice, congratulated himself on installing dozens of surveillance cameras throughout the city — crediting them with the arrest of a second suspect, a man spotted with Coulibaly prior to the attack. Nothing yet indicates that the man played any role in the incident.
Later on Wednesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that the terror threat level in Nice had been raised to the maximum, matching Paris' current terror threat level.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter@PLongeray