Four people are in custody in connection to a beheading and explosion at a gas factory in south-eastern France–and police are still searching buildings for evidence.
Heavily armed police investigating this morning’s brutal terror attack in France have removed a woman and child from the home of Yassine Salhi–the suspected Islamist accused of beheading his boss and trying to blow up the American-owned gas factory.
He was known to factory personnel because he came in regularly for deliveries, Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said.
Police swooped on the apartment building in Saint-Priest, in the suburbs of the city of Lyon, just hours after the 30-year-old delivery driver was arrested on suspicion of writing Arabic slogans on his employer’s severed head and hanging it on a fence outside the nearby headquarters of Air Products.
Salhi is accused of going on to crash his Ford Fusion delivery van through the factory’s gates before ramming it into several large gas cannisters left in the car park–apparently in the hope they would explode and destroy the entire factory complex.
The explosions were relatively small, however, leaving just two factory workers with non life-threatening injuries.
The murdered man–who French media say owned the delivery company Salhi worked for–is believed to have been killed elsewhere before his corpse was dumped at the factory site in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier and his head impaled on a fence 30 feet away surrounded by homemade Islamist flags.
Speaking before the raid on her home, Salhi’s wife described her husband as a ‘normal Muslim’ who left for work as usual at 7am this morning. ‘My heart stopped when I heard he was a suspect….I expected him this afternoon,’ the unnamed woman told French radio station Europe 1.
Salhi–who is understood to have been known to security services since at least 2006–reportedly told arresting officers that he is a member of the Islamic State terror group. He is believed not to have a criminal record and an investigation into his ‘possible radicalisation’ was dropped in 2008.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking in Brussels, said the attack began when a car crashed through the gate of the factory and ploughed into gas canisters, setting off an explosion.
‘No doubt about the intention–to cause an explosion,’ Mr Hollande said, calling the attack ‘of a terrorist nature’.
The victims’ head was found staked on a gate at the factory’s entrance, in what appeared to be an echo of the Islamic State group’s practice of beheading prisoners and displaying their heads for all to see.
An official said two flags–one white and one black, both with Arabic inscriptions–were found nearby. Images from the scene suggest the banners may have been homemade and written using paint.
At a press conference this afternoon, Cazeneuve named the arrested man as Yassine Salhi.
‘He was investigated in 2006 for radicalisation, but [the probe] was not renewed in 2008. He had no criminal record,’ he added. ‘This individual has links with the Salafist movement, but had not been identified as having participated in activities of a terrorist nature.’
A local newspaper is reporting that the unnamed dead man was Salhi’s boss and that their company regularly delivered to Air Products.
Before this afternoon’s raids at her home, an unnamed woman claiming to be Salhi wife has since spoke to the Europe1 radio station.
‘I don’t know what happened, he left to go to work as normal,’ she said.
She said he was a delivery driver who left, as normal at 7am. ‘My heart stopped when I heard he was a suspect,’ she added. ‘He went to work this morning at 7am. He does deliveries. He did not return between noon and two, I expected him this afternoon.
‘My sister said turn on the television. She was crying… I know my husband. We have a normal family life. He goes to work, he comes back…We are normal Muslims. We do Ramadan. We have three children and a normal family life.’
Anti-terror police subsequently took the woman and her three children out of the apartment block in Saint Priest where she has been living with Salhi for the past six months.
France’s prime minister later branded the attack ‘Islamist terrorism,’ announcing he was cutting short a visit to South America to deal with the crisis.
‘Islamist terrorism has hit France again,’ Manuel Valls told a press conference in Colombia’s capital Bogota, adding that he would take part by telephone in an emergency meeting called by President Francois Hollande, then rush back to France.
Within an hour of the attack, French President Francois Hollande was to return home early from an EU summit.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels shortly afterwards, Hollande said a man who launched a ‘terrorist’ assault on a gas factory Friday has been identified and that there may have been a second attacker. Local media reported that a second terrorist has since been arrested.
‘This attack was in a vehicle driven by one person, perhaps accompanied by another,’ Hollande added. ‘The individual suspected of committing this attack has been arrested and identified.’
Local newspaper Dauphine Libere is reporting that a second person has now been arrested, believed to be the man who drove the Ford Fusion ‘preview’ car around the factory this morning before the attack.
Investigators are working to establish the full details of the attack but is widely thought that the explosions were intended to have a far bigger impact than causing several dozen injuries, and may have been intended to blow up the entire Air Products headquarters.
Salhi had a ‘link’ to Salafist movement, Cazeneuve said but was not implicated in any terrorist activities. The Salafi movement is a group within Sunni Islam, which is often associated with literalist approaches to Islam.
He said a ‘fiche S’ was opened on the attacker in 2006 for radicalisation. A ‘fiche S’ for which the S stands for ‘Sûreté d’etat’ basically means he had been identified as a possible danger and should be watched.
The file was not renewed in 2008, however, meaning authorities no longer considered him a risk. Cazeneuve also said the man named as Yassine Sali had no criminal record. He added that the suspect is believed to be father of three children.
He was known for links to extremism but not identified as a high risk who would carry out an attack, says Cazeneuve.
The president of Air Products–an American owned company that is understood to have recently signed a large contract with Saudi Arabia–is an Iranian Shia Muslim named Seifi Ghasemi.
Iran is known to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria–the sworn enemy of the Islamic State terror group.
There remains a great deal of confusion over the exact sequence of events at the factory., which belongs to Air Products–a US chemical company based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The company would not confirm whether any employees were injured or killed.
‘Our priority at this stage is to take care of our employees, who have been evacuated from the site and all accounted for,’ the company said in a statement.
‘The site is secure. Our crisis and emergency response teams have been activated and are working closely with all relevant authorities.’
The company added that all its employees are accounted for after an attack on a factory in southwestern France. It has not confirmed whether its staff were among the two people reported injured and one dead.
It released a statement that all employees have been evacuated from the site, which is secure.
It says ‘our crisis and emergency response teams have been activated and are working closely with all relevant authorities.’
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls ordered heightened security measures Friday at ‘sensitive sites’ near the gas factory that was attacked in eastern France.
Valls, who is on an official trip to South America, asked Cazeneuve to head to Saint-Quentin Fallavier, the site of the attack, the premier’s entourage said.
The Mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, took to Twitter to condemn the attacks.
‘The terrorist threat is at a maximum’, he wrote, adding that France ‘must make every effort to protect its citizens’.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his sympathies over the incident to French President Francois Hollande.
The two leaders spoke in Brussels, where they are attending a European Council summit.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: ‘He expressed his sympathies for what looks like an appalling incident.
‘Details are still emerging, so we wait to see those. But it clearly looks an extremely concerning situation and our thoughts are with all those affected by it.’
The Government’s emergency Cobra committee will meet this afternoon following terror attacks in France and Tunisia, David Cameron said as he offered ‘our solidarity in fighting this evil of terrorism’.
France has been on its highest security alert ever since the Paris attacks and according to the Dauphiné Libéré, an internal security services source said that ‘all the signals in recent weeks have been pointing to red for an attack of this nature occurring in the national territory.’