AN Islamic extremist with an arsenal of loaded guns was only prevented from opening fire on Sunday morning churchgoers because he accidentally shot himself, French officials said.
The 24-year-old computer science student, who was also suspected in the death of a young woman whose body was found on Sunday just ahead of his arrest, had been flagged as a risk last year and earlier this year, but there was no specific reason to open a judicial investigation, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said yesterday.
A French security official said the suspect – an Algerian who had lived in France for several years – was arrested in Paris on Sunday after he apparently shot himself by accident and called for an ambulance. He was waiting outside for first aid when police arrived at the scene. The IT student gave a confused account to police of how he came to be shot.
Officers discovered a blood trail leading to his car, which contained loaded guns and notes about potential targets.
“Documents were also found and they prove, without any ambiguity, that the individual was preparing an imminent attack, in all probability against one or two churches,” Mr Cazeneuve said.
The cache of arms included four “Kalashnikov-style” automatic weapons, bulletproof vests, several police armbands and the detailed plans of several Parisian police stations.
In the man’s apartment, in southeastern Paris, more weapons were found as well as Islamic extremist material, the security official said. There was no immediate evidence that the suspect had direct ties to any organised groups, the official added.
Aurélie Châtelain, who had a five-year-old daughter, was found on Sunday morning in the passenger seat of her car with three bullets in the head.
The 32-year-old Frenchwoman had just finished a pilates class. Experts say DNA traces links the man with the murder.
The security official said Ms Chatelain appeared to have been killed at random and ballistics evidence linked her death to the suspect.
Mr Cazeneuve said the suspect had been under surveillance since 2014 when he made it known he wished to go to Syria to join jihadis there.
He disappeared in February this year and was found to have spent a week in Turkey. He was arrested, briefly held, and given a warning on his return, but his profile was not thought to justify further action beyond circulating a security warning.
“Our country, like other European countries, is facing a terrorist threat that is unusual in its nature and size. Our vigilance and our determination are absolute and constant,” the minister added.
“The terrorists target France to divide us” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls at a news conference held yesterday.
France has been on edge since the January 7-9 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket left 20 people dead, including the three gunmen.
In that case, at least two of the gunmen had been flagged to French intelligence – and the third had been recently released from prison after serving a sentence involving his ties to Islamic extremists – but surveillance was called off months before the attack.
France heightened surveillance of potential attackers and boosted the number of troops patrolling sensitive sites after the attacks to around 10,000.