Yelling that he wanted to kill and die for Allah, a suspected Islamic extremist attacked a French soldier Saturday morning at Paris’ Orly Airport and wrested away her assault rifle, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said. Two colleagues on her patrol shot and killed the man before he could fire the military-grade weapon in the busy airport terminal.
The attack forced the airport’s terminals to shut down and evacuate, sent passengers and workers fleeing in panic and trapped hundreds of others aboard flights that had just landed. It was the violent climax of what authorities described as a 90-minute spree of destructive criminality across the French capital by the suspect, identified as Ziyed Ben Belgacem.
Stopped first by police in Paris’ northern suburbs early Saturday morning for driving too fast and without lights in a small Renault, the 39-year-old Frenchman opened fire with a revolver loaded with bird shot, injuring an officer in the face, authorities said.
He then fled by car to a bar in Vitry, south of Paris, that he frequented regularly and where he had already stopped a few hours earlier and again opened fire. No one was injured.
Finally, in another car stolen at gunpoint, he parked at Orly. A few minutes later, he hurled himself at three soldiers on patrol in its South Terminal, throwing a bag with a gas can at the floor and wielding his 9 mm revolver.
“With a pistol in his right hand and a bag over his shoulder, he grabbed (the soldier) with his left arm, made her move backward by three to four meters, positioning her as a shield, and pointed his revolver at her forehead,” Molins said.
According to soldiers, the attacker yelled: “Put down your weapons! Put your hands on your head! I am here to die for Allah. Whatever happens, there will be deaths,” Molins said.
In a struggle, the attacker managed to wrest free the captive soldier’s Famas assault rifle and sling it over his shoulder.
In between the moments when he ducked behind his hostage, the two other soldiers fired three bursts, eight rounds in all, that killed the attacker, Molins said.
Authorities said at least 3,000 people were evacuated while hundreds of passengers also were confined for several hours aboard 13 flights that were blocked in landing areas, and 15 other flights were diverted to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Despite the transportation chaos, French authorities stressed that security planning – reinforced across the country in the wake of repeated attacks – worked well.
The soldier was “psychologically shocked” but unhurt by the “rapid and violent” assault, according to Col. Benoit Brulon, a spokesman for the military force that patrols public sites in France.
Belgacem’s father and brother were detained by police for questioning later Saturday, which is standard operating procedure. Molins said a cousin of Belgacem’s also turned himself in for questioning, having spent time with the attacker in the bar the previous night.
A search of Belgacem’s residence found cocaine and a machete, Molins said. The prosecutors’ office said the attacker had a record of robbery and drug offenses. Molins said he was out on bail, banned from leaving France and obliged to report regularly to police, having been handed preliminary charges for robberies in 2016.
Molins said Belgacem was flagged as having been radicalized during a spell in detention from 2011-12. His house was among scores searched in November 2015 in the immediate aftermath of suicide bomb-and-gun attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.
The military patrol at Orly was part of the Sentinelle force installed around France to protect sensitive sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks. Saturday was at least the fourth time that Sentinelle soldiers have been targeted since the force, which includes 7,500 soldiers, was created in 2015.