PARIS – The suspect in the beheading of a history teacher in suburban Paris was an 18-year-old immigrant of Chechen descent who was resentful at the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in the classroom, French officials said Saturday.
The suspect, identified by authorities as Abdoulakh A., followed the area outside the school on Friday afternoon before following the teacher he stabbed and beheaded with a knife, Jean-François Ricard, chief prosecutor for counterterrorism, told a press conference .
“The person was out of college the afternoon and asked the students to report the future victim,” Ricard said, referring to the middle school where the teacher had taught. The suspect was fatally shot by police in a confrontation shortly after the murder.
Investigators found a message planning the attack on the suspect’s cell phone, written hours earlier, Ricard said. Just before he was killed by police, the suspect posted a photo of the victim on Twitter, he added.
The gruesome murder appeared to be the culmination of several weeks of tension at the College du Bois-d’Aulne school in a quiet, bourgeois suburb north of Paris. Muslim parents were upset at the display in the classroom of two cartoons published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They had contacted school and police officers, but videos uploaded by a father to social media expanded the argument to an outside audience.
Investigators were still trying to find out how the suspect had spent his days prior to the attack, Ricard said. However, the suspect did not appear to have any direct school connections or previously been involved in the dispute.
The Moscow-born suspect lived in France with refugee status, Ricard said, adding that he was unknown to counter-terrorism officials.
The brutal murder was the second violent episode in weeks to be linked to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo that led to fatal attacks in Paris in 2015. Last month, as the trial of accomplices in the 2015 attack began, the magazine republished The Drawings – an act seen by some as a bold statement in the name of freedom of expression, but viewed by others as a ruthless and unnecessary provocation.
Last month, a 25-year-old Pakistani immigrant assaulted two people outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices, apparently angry after watching videos showing protests in Pakistan against the republication of the cartoons.
Aside from its brutality, the murder struck a far bigger nerve in France on Friday when President Emmanuel Macron and other high-ranking government officials were there on Friday night.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the minister for national education, said that “the republic was under attack” in Friday’s murder. France said a ceremony would be organized to pay national tribute to the murdered teacher.
The minister’s words reflected the central role played by public schools in France, following a national curriculum set by the central government to instill civic values and a national identity. But they also highlighted the recurring tensions between the traditional republican values of France and those of the newcomers, especially those of Muslim faith who oppose the publication of the cartoons.
Tensions at the College du Bois-d’Aulne emerged earlier this month when the teacher, who was 47 and who according to parents and students had only taught at the school for a few years, brought up the issue of freedom of expression.