Paris Attack Suspect Wanted to Target Charlie Hebdo With Arson

PARIS — The man suspected of stabbing two people outside the former Paris office of Charlie Hebdo last week admitted to investigators that he wanted to set the building on fire, and he railed against cartoons of the prophet in a video found on his phone, but he did not pledge allegiance to any known terrorist group, French authorities said on Tuesday.

Jean-François Ricard, the top antiterrorism prosecutor, said at a news conference that the video showed the suspect, Zaher Hassan Mahmood, 25, weeping and denouncing the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Ricard said Mr. Mahmood had told investigators that he had searched online for the address for Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper whose office was attacked in January 2015, and scouted the area, but had not realized that they moved. He had initially planned to set the former newspaper’s offices on fire, Mr. Ricard said, adding that the police found several bottles of turpentine in his bag.

But Mr. Mahmood changed his mind when he saw two people smoking outside the building near a mural paying tribute to those killed in 2015, Mr. Ricard said. Thinking they were employees of the newspaper, he lunged at them with a meat cleaver. The “extremely violent” attack, caught on surveillance cameras, lasted only 20 seconds, Mr. Ricard said.

Last week’s attack, which came during an ongoing trial for several people linked to the January 2015 killings, brought fears of terrorism back to the surface in France. In recent years, the threats have evolved — from large-scale, organized plots, like the November 2015 attacks in Paris, in which more than 100 were killed, to isolated acts that are harder to predict and prevent.

Mr. Ricard said that Mr. Mahmood, who is from Pakistan and who had never been flagged by French intelligence agencies in the past, had no prior convictions.

French authorities had previously identified the man as an 18-year-old based on statements he gave to the police, but on his phone investigators found a picture of his passport identifying him as 25. Mr. Ricard declined to comment when asked if Pakistani authorities had confirmed Mr. Mahmood’s identity.

Mr. Mahmood was expected to be charged with attempted murder and criminal conspiracy, both on aggravated counts of terrorism, Mr. Ricard said.

Nine people associated with Mr. Mahmood who were taken into police custody after the attack have been released without charges. Investigators said they provided insights into his actions ahead of the attack. Those associates reported that Mr. Mahmood repeatedly watched videos featuring the founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a hard-line Islamic group that organized several demonstrations in Pakistan earlier this month after Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, investigators said.

Mr. Ricard said that Mr. Mahmood told investigators he had seen videos of those protests.

Another man, an Algerian in his 30s, was also arrested shortly after the attack, but was later released without charges when it emerged that he was a witness to the attack who ran after Mr. Mahmood into a train station to try and stop him.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Monday, a man living in Pakistan who identified himself as the suspect’s father said he was “proud” of his son.

“Whatever he did is in his love for Prophet Muhammad,” the man, Arshad Mahmood, told the newspaper. “I say whatever he did is right.”

Mr. Mahmood, a farmer in a small village in central Pakistan, told The Journal that his son, one of seven children, had traveled to France two years ago with two brothers in search of work.

Mr. Ricard said that Mr. Mahmood had been taken into the care of French social services under a false identity and had been posing as a minor named Hassan Ali since his arrival in France in the summer of 2018. He was not a legal resident, but he was scheduled to meet with the local authorities to review his status on the day of the attack.

In April, two people in southern France were stabbed to death in an attack the police blame on a suspect with no known ties to a terror group.

Laurent Nuñez, the former head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, told France Inter radio on Monday that large-scale attacks were now easier to intercept and that security forces were increasingly encountering individuals who might be inspired by terrorist propaganda but are unaffiliated with any known terrorist groups.

“Often, they have no contact with the Syria-Iraq region, so they aren’t spotted in that regard,” said Mr. Nuñez, who now coordinates France’s antiterrorism response. “It is therefore much harder for intelligence agencies to detect.”

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