Date of Incident: 11 December 2018
Location: Strasbourg, France
- An attack was carried out in the area of the Strasbourg Christmas markets, resulting in five deaths and 11 injuries.
- The attacker was identified as Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year-old Strasbourg resident with significant criminal background and subject to surveillance by the security services, who had attempted to arrest him on the morning of the attack.
- Islamic State propaganda outlets claimed Chekatt was inspired by the group.
- A large scale man-hunt was conducted following the attack, until Chekatt was located and killed on 13 December 2018.
On 11 December 2018, an attack occurred in the vicinity of the Christmas markets being held in and around Place Kléber, Strasbourg. At approximately 20:00 local time, an individual was seen brandishing a handgun on Rue des Orfèvres. This individual proceeded to move through the area in a westerly direction, opening fire and using a knife to seriously wound and kill people in several locations. Official reports suggest that he was heard to shout “Allahu Akhbar” (“God is Greatest”) whilst firing at bystanders. Anti-terror Operation Sentinelle soldiers were posted in the area and engaged the assailant, wounding him in the arm before he hijacked a taxi and made his way south-west to the Neudorf area. On arrival in Neudorf, the gunman exchanged fire with police officers before evading capture. As a result of the attack, five people were killed and 11 others injured.
Testimony provided by the driver of the hijacked taxi enabled investigators to link the suspect to a raid on a property in Neudorf that had taken place in the early hours of 11 December. Officers hunting Cherif Chekatt in connection with a robbery and homicide found a grenade, a rifle and other offensive weapons at his residence.
Reports suggest Chekatt had been under surveillance since 2015. Born in Strasbourg, he had served jail time in France, Germany and Switzerland for a total of 27 convictions. French prison services raised concerns about his suspected radicalisation in jail, and he was placed on a watchlist detailing individuals who posed a potential threat to national security referred to as ‘fiche S’.
In light of this information, an extensive police operation was initiated in order to ensure the apprehension of Chekatt. The French authorities issued advice to avoid the Neudorf region and escalated the Vigipirate national alert system to its highest level. Border controls were bolstered, and security was heightened at Christmas markets across France in order to mitigate the risk of copycat attacks.
At approximately 21:00 on 13 December, police officers sighted a man they identified as Chekatt on Rue du Lazaret, Neudorf. Official reports suggest that the suspect, on noticing the officers, attempted to gain entry to a building. Unable to do so, he produced a pistol and fired at the officers, who returned fire and killed the suspect. A WWI era revolver, ammunition and a knife were found on his body. The Paris prosecutor’s office formally identified the deceased as Chekatt and declared that he had died at the scene at 21.05. Following his death, a propaganda outlet for Islamic State (IS) declared that Chekatt had “conducted this operation in response to the call to target the citizens [of countries] of the international coalition” fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. The French interior minister dismissed this assertion as “opportunistic”.
Four members of Chekatt’s family were detained for questioning following the attack. Amongst them, his father and a brother, both of whom are also subject to surveillance as individuals of concern on the ‘fiche S’ list.
This is not the first time that the Strasbourg Christmas markets have been the intended target of extremist elements. In 2000, French, German and British authorities disrupted an Al-Qaeda linked plot to bomb the area during New Year’s Eve festivities. In 2016, seven suspected IS affiliates were arrested in Marseille and Strasbourg. As mass attendance events held in areas that are easily accessible to the public, Christmas markets are an attractive target for extremists; the potentially heightened impact on morale and community relations of high casualty attacks during the festive season serve to enhance this appeal.
We note that Chekatt was well known to authorities due to a significant criminal background and concerns regarding his radicalisation had been raised. Further, reports suggest he had familial links to extremist elements. Whilst such a crime-terror nexus clearly raises concerns, this attack is assessed to have been a ‘lone-wolf’ incident; perhaps catalysed by Chekatt’s realisation that the security services were actively seeking to arrest him for murder. The fact that Chekatt was under such close surveillance and still managed to carry out this attack again highlights the difficulty in detecting and preventing such lone-wolf actions.
Chekatt may have been inspired by IS. However, IS are often quick to claim attacks even if they are not responsible in order to increase their public profile, as well as demonstrating freedom of movement to create fear in the local populace. The additional publicity from claiming attacks serves to enhance the reputation of the group, and to inspire other individuals to conduct similar acts of terrorism.
Chekatt’s criminal background will have provided a level of access to firearms not available to those outside the crime-terror nexus, and the European security services have demonstrated success in controlling firearms and explosives since the spate of high-profile terror attacks across Europe between 2015-17. In response, recent IS propaganda has called for potential attackers to utilise whatever means they have at their disposal; the result of this can be seen in the use of knives and vehicles to conduct attacks in recent years. Whether guided or inspired by IS, there remains a credible threat of attacks across Europe. Lone wolf attacks utilising simple, widely available equipment (such as vehicles and knives) will predominate. That said, the potential for mass-casualty weapons to be deployed cannot be ruled out.