BRUSSELS — France’s month of turmoil just got worse.
Weeks of so-called “Yellow Vest” protests already had stretched the police thin, unsettled the country’s push to become the leader of Europe, and forced President Emmanuel Macron to promise tax cuts and subsidy hikes in a televised speech Monday.
And that was before Tuesday night’s attack in Strasbourg left at least two dead and more than a dozen wounded and triggered a hunt that shut the country’s borders with Germany and Switzerland.
The fact that police hadn’t found Chérif Chekatt on Wednesday, 24 hours after he allegedly opened fire on Strasbourg’s Christmas market, the country’s oldest, only added to the pressure.
“The police are exhausted after weeks of security threats and demonstrations, not to mention Christmas holidays,” said a French undercover police officer who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.
The officer noted that Chekatt’s presence on the country’s terrorist watch list was almost meaningless — there are 26,000 other suspected radicals on the list.
“We were already struggling to keep up with a list of radicals that has more than doubled in the last four years because actually monitoring someone, just one person, can take a team of up to 20 people in some cases. We don’t have anywhere near the resources to prevent things like this from happening. We can only do our best and hope we can get people before they do too much damage.”
French police knew Chekatt was a violent criminal, with 27 arrests over the years, when they arrived at his Strasbourg residence Tuesday morning to serve an arrest warrant in an unrelated attempted murder case. He’d been to prison repeatedly, serving at least three long sentences in France and Germany — the last stretch in France resulting in his radicalization by Islamist prisoners, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials in both France and Belgium.
It was that radicalization that had earned him a spot on France’s terrorist watch list, known as the “S list.”
Chekatt was not at home. Hours later, he allegedly opened fire with a pistol on crowds of shoppers at the Christmas market, killing two, leaving a third person brain-dead, and wounding 12 others. The French government labeled the shooting a terrorist incident — the worst this year in France and all of Europe. Police believe Chekatt could be nearly anywhere.
“We know he’s wounded, but it doesn’t look like the wound will kill him,” the French officer said.
In the wake of his escape, European officials raised security warnings to their highest level in two years, and police flooded France’s borders with Germany and Switzerland, searching every vehicle they encountered.
“He’s got friends of the criminal sort in Germany, but unless they’re also jihadists they might not be so eager to see him, wounded while being hunted by all of Europe,” said a Belgian security official who also requested anonymity to discuss the hunt. “There are significant leads because in the course of his more than 20 arrests and multiple jail terms we have a decent idea of who his friends and colleagues are in all three countries. If he reaches out to someone we know, of course, this will end quickly.”
How could this happen?
“We knew that he would be armed and violent when the arrest was going to take place,” said the French police official. When he wasn’t there, though, police didn’t know where else to look for him until he allegedly opened fire at 8 p.m. at the Christmas market.
It was not the first time European police have been on the verge of arresting someone who would later become part of a major terrorist incident. Indeed, the raid might have played a part in triggering the burst of violence, the Belgian police official suggested.
He recalled the wave of violence that swept Brussels in March 2016 after Belgian police finally captured Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspects in the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
“We finally got him, but that sparked the rest of the terror cell to act immediately,” he recalled, referring to bombings of the Brussels metro and airport that left 33 dead.
“Things have improved since then in terms of communications between different law enforcement groups and intelligence services but look at the size of the S List, with more than 20,000 people to watch in France alone,” the official added. “It’s not possible to closely monitor that many people in a liberal democracy.”
After the initial arrest attempt Tuesday morning, law enforcement immediately realized that the suspect was even more dangerous than they’d believed. Inside his home, they discovered homemade bombs and an assault rifle.
“It’s not certain if he’s just a violent criminal who used weapons — which he appears to be, regardless — or if he was planning an attack and was interrupted,” said the French police official. “We obviously would like to ask him in person but the domestic and international intelligence services are trying to determine if there was a bigger plot, if it was directed by someone like ISIS or if this guy just snapped when we came to get him.”
Chekatt hailed a taxi in the old section of Strasbourg and disappeared. According to the driver of the taxi, he appeared to have been wounded. Those details of the hunt were released in a statement by a Paris anti-terrorism prosecutor, Rémy Heitz. He also said that five people have been detained in Strasbourg, including friends and family of Chekatt.
Authorities believe Chekatt was radicalized after a long career as a violent but small-time criminal during a stint in jail between 2012 and 2015. Shortly after his release in 2015, he was convicted of breaking into a German dentist’s office to steal money and gold teeth and was deported back to France in 2017 after completing his sentence there.
As for the hunt and Chekatt’s current location, with 27 countries sharing more or less open borders, it could take days to find him, with police sources noting that his extensive criminal record might make life on the run easier for him.
One source pointed out that the 2016 Christmas market truck attack that killed 12 people and wounded dozens in Berlin was perpetrated by a Tunisian refugee who also escaped the scene, leaving Europe in a security crisis until he was killed in a shootout with Italian police in Milan — four days later.
Chérif Chekatt’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.