The gunman who opened fire on a police vehicle on the Champs-Elysees in Paris Thursday night has been identified as an ISIS fighter in a claim of responsibility for the attack by the so-called Islamic State.
The shooting left one police officer dead and two others wounded.
Karim Cheurfi, 39, was shot dead by police at the scene, L’Express reports. Cheurfi was born in Livry-Gargan and lived in Chelles, Seine-et-Marne, the newspaper reports.
He was called Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki in a statement from ISIS. His name has also been spelled Abu Youssef and al-Beljiki in some reports.
French President Francois Hollande previously said they believe the attack is terror-related.
The officers were “deliberately targeted” in the shooting, Pierre-Henry Brandet, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told BFM.
The shooting was reported to the anti-terrorist section of the Paris prosecutor’s office, said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French expert on terrorism.
The attack happened between the Franklin Roosevelt metro station and the Arc de Triumph about 9 p.m. local time.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Cheurfi, Armed With an Automatic Rifle, Opened Fire on a Police Car Stopped at a Red Light, the Police Union Says
Three police officers were shot, with one killed and two seriously injured, according to BFM TV.
The gunman, identified as Karim Cheufri and also known as Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, was using an automatic weapon, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said.
France's National Police union said on Twitter that a gunman fired at a police car stopped at a red light, killing an officer.
The man got out his car to fire on the officers, according to CNN.
Pierre-Henry Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the gunman “then ran away, managing to shoot and wound two other policemen. Other policemen engaged and shot and killed the attacker.”
A witness, named Chelloug, told Sky News he heard six shots after a man armed with a Kalashnikov rifle parked his Audi behind a police vehicle.
“I thought they were firecrackers. In fact, he was hidden behind the van and shooting at the police. I think he hit a policeman. As soon as the policeman opened the door of the van, he fell,” the witness said.
The local police department tweeted that people should avoid the area. Witnesses reported seeing dozens of officers at the scene, while helicopters circled above.
The Champs-Elysees was closed in the area about 9:30 p.m. local time after the shooting, CNN reports.
It is a major tourist area, with restaurants, cafes and shops lining the street.
Witnesses on Twitter said they heard several gunshots near the scene. One witness said people panicked, overturning tables and ducking for cover.
Julien Courbet, a French journalist, said on Twitter he has never experienced panic like he did as he was in a restaurant near the scene at the time of the shooting. He said people were hiding in the restaurant with the lights off.
2. He Was Convicted of Shooting Police Officers in 2001 & Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison, but Was Released Early
Karim Cheurfi, now known as Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, was convicted of shooting at police officers in 2001, L’Express reports. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2003, but that term was reduced to 15 years in 2005, the newspaper reports.
According to a 2001 report from Le Parisien, Cheurfi, then 23, stole a gun from a police officer and shot him three times, in the lung, leg and foot. He also fired at other officers.
Cheurfi was already known for committing violent robberies and was in police custody at the time of the incident, the newspaper reports.
Just days before he shot the officer while in custody, Cheurfi also shot at a police officer during a road rage incident while driving a stolen Peugeot 405, according to the report.
He struck the officer’s car and then fled the scene. The off-duty officer and his brother chased Cheurfi and Cheurfi shot both of them after crashing his car at the end of the pursuit. He was then arrested, according to the newspaper.
3. He Was Known as an Extremist & Threatened to Shoot Police Officers on Telegram, Sources Say
Police have not yet released any details about the gunman or the gunmen or a motive for the attack. ISIS identified him as Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, but authorities have not yet confirmed that publicly.
BFM TV reports the gunman killed at the scene was previously known to authorities. He had written on Telegram, an instant messaging service, about wanting to kill police officers, the news station reports.
According to France 2 news, the shooter was taken into custody recently and interrogated because informants said he was looking for weapons to kill police officers. But he was released.
The shooter was flagged as an extremist, police officials told the Associated Press.
Authorities declined to provide details about his criminal history or possible affiliations, the AP reports.
ISIS fighters often add the name of their native country to the end of their name, in this case, “The Belgian.” According to Jean-Charles Brisard, a French terrorism expert, the suspect is believed to have been of French nationality, and may have simply lived in Belgium, which led to the “al-Baljiki” name.
Police were searching homes Thursday night where the attacker lived.
4. An ISIS Expert Says the Claim of Responsibility Indicates the Attacker Was Known to the Terror Group
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement from the Amaq news agency, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
The statement named the gunman as ISIS fighter Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, also spelled al-Beljiki.
Rita Katz, the director of SITE, said on Twitter that the statement from Amaq is different from other claims made by ISIS after other attacks.
She said it indicates that “ISIS was familiar with the attacker and likely the upcoming attack.”
New York Times reporter Rukmni Callimachi, who has extensively covered ISIS for the newspaper, said the speed of the claim also stands out.
“To me what is of note is speed of claim. Despite popular perception, ISIS does *not* claim everything & they typically take up to 12 hrs,” she said on Twitter. “They claimed this attack in circa 2.5 hours. As far as attacks in West, this may be a record. Only 1 that comes close is Brussels airport. Brussels airport was around 4-5 hours if memory serves me right. Even Nov 13 Paris attack, which was carried out by core ISIS took longer.”
Abu Yusuf’s name was included in a set of ISIS documents uncovered last year:
Belgium has been hit hard by Islamic terrorism, with several networks believed to exist in the country that neighbors France. Belgian-born ISIS terrorists have carried out attacks in both France and in Brussels in recent years.
The country is the biggest per capita contributor of fighters to Syria, and many of those ISIS converts were believed to have returned to Belgium, the New York Times reports.
5. The Shooting Comes Just Days Before France Is Set for the First Round of Its Presidential Election
The shooting comes just days before France is set to vote in the first round of its presidential election. The threat of terrorism has been a key topic during the campaign, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen calling for stricter border controls and a crackdown on foreign extremists, according to the Associated Press. Le Pen is one of the main candidates for the presidency, along with centrist Emmanuel Macron, leftwing Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon.
Some of candidates quickly reacted to the shooting on Thursday.
“Emotion and solidarity for our security forces, again being targeted,” Le Pen said in French on Twitter.
“Tribute to the security forces who give their lives to protect ours,” Fillon said on Twitter.
Macron said on Twitter, “Tonight I want to show all my solidarity with our law enforcement. … The first duty, the first mission of the President is to protect.”
Melenchon said on Twitter, “Thoughts for the police” killed in the attack and their families. He said terrorist acts will “never go unpunished,” and accomplices will be caught.
There have been several major terrorist attacks in France in recent years, starting with the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in January 2015, along with the November 2015 Paris attacks that left 130 dead and the Bastille Day truck ramming in July 2016 in Nice that left 130 dead and 434 injured.
Authorities announced earlier this week that a possible attack plot was thwarted, the Associated Press reported. Two French men with alleged ties to ISIS were arrested in Marseille, authorities said. Explosives were found during the investigation along with a mask, wig and ISIS flag, The Independent reports.
After the arrests, Le Pen said “Islamic fundamentalism” has “expanded exponentially” in the country over the past decade.
“It’s time to put back France in order,” she said, the AP reports. “We cannot fight the terrorism that weighs on our country without controlling our borders.”
Macron said the “terrorist threat remains very high,” but said that terrorism is “a challenge that calls upon us more than anything else to come together, because the terrorists with nothing more than our division.”
Fillon said he is committed to Europe’s open borders.
“Democracy must not get on its knees in front of the threats and intimidations from terrorists,” Fillon said in a written statement. “The campaign must continue until the end.”
And Melenchon suggested the three other candidates were possibly targets of the Marseilles suspects.
“We will never make the gift to criminals to divide in front of them. We are not afraid,” Melenchon said at a rally, the Associated Press reports.
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