BRUSSELS — In the hours before French police shot dead the suspect in Tuesday’s shootings at Strasbourg’s Christmas market, European counterterrorism officials were noting how much the search for Chérif Chekatt reminded them of other incidents when a terrorist attacker survived the attack.
“A lot of these guys forget to make sure that they’re martyred,” said a Belgian official who’s been involved in tracking terrorist attacks in Brussels. ”I sense sometimes there’s a burst of evil that allows people to commit these terrible crimes, but once it’s over and they’re shocked to find themselves still alive, sometimes they panic because there was no plan for survival.”
The pattern has happened repeatedly over the past four years. While most of the suicide bombers and so-called lone wolf attackers who’ve targeted Europe on behalf of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda die during their attacks, several have survived and have gone on to lead authorities on highly publicized searches that have lasted days or even months.
The search for Chekatt lasted barely 48 hours after he opened fire at the Christmas market, killing three and wounding at least 10 others. Now police will be trying to determine, with no living suspect to interview, what motivated the gunman and whether he had planned to escape.
A French police officer recalled the case of Saleh Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the cell that carried out the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Abdeslam apparently lost his nerve as the attacks were unfolding, discarded his explosive vest in a public trash can near the cafés he’d been ordered to target, and called a friend in Brussels to come pick him in Paris and drive him home.
“He didn’t want to die, so he took off the vest, called home, and then waited two hours for his ride, smoking marijuana with some kids from Saint-Denis,” said a French police officer who helped chase him, referring to a Paris suburb. “He managed to stay free for four months, but even that decision to not die helped us tremendously because even though he’s currently refusing to talk, his movements and calls after the attack gave us lots of information about the rest of the network.”
French media accounts from the time claim that Abdeslam even watched the breaking news coverage of the massacre, in which his brother Brahim died attacking a café.
Nobody expected the hunt for Chekatt to last long, because European intelligence and law enforcement agencies have focused on improving cooperation to manage tens of thousands of threats on the continent — today France alone has about 26,000 names on its so-called S List of potential security threats. But the hunt no doubt benefited from another oddity of recent terrorist attacks — after killing three innocent bystanders in the market and wounding as many as 10, Chekatt inexplicably let the driver of a taxi he'd commandeered live.
The driver was able to tell authorities not only where he’d left Chekatt, but that he was wounded in the left leg, allowing police to learn substantial information about his state of mind, location, and physical condition.
“He could be dying in some basement, or he could be fine, but either way he’s got to be in pain, and that’s clouding his judgment and making movement much harder,” said the French police official a few hours before the gunman was confronted by police on the street in the Neudorf section of Strasbourg, where he opened fire before being shot dead. “But we know he’s an experienced criminal, and that alone will give him more options and connections for escape than some radicalized rich kid or convert.”
The Belgian official, recalling the Paris–Brussels cell that organized multiple attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016, said the hours after Chekatt's attacks suggest a lack of planning.
“The Abdeslam cell led by Abdelhamid Abaaoud was a much larger and properly organized network in contact with ISIS leadership in Syria than Chekatt’s operation,” the official said. “His attack feels and looks a lot more impulsive than the Paris cell, which was carefully planned.”
Chekatt had served a prison sentence for burglary in Germany and reportedly had a brother in Germany. But it does not appear he strayed far from the site of the original attack. He was killed less than a mile from the scene of Tuesday night's attack.