PARIS // Traces of DNA on an orange juice bottle and a surveillance video of a man praying in a mall led to the arrest yesterday of a man accused of stabbing a French soldier while he was patrolling a crowded area outside of Paris.
The attack came days after a British soldier was killed on a London street in broad daylight, raising fears of potential copycat attacks.
France has been on a heightened security alert since January, when its military battled Islamist extremists in the African nation of Mali.
The stabbing suspect was caught on camera praying in a corner of a shopping mall on Saturday, 10 minutes before the soldier was attacked in the La Defense financial and shopping district, said Francois Molins, a French prosecutor.
The 22-year-old man, identified only by his first name, Alexandre, had bought the juice and the pocketknife used in the attack an hour beforehand, he added.
"The intent to kill is obvious," said Mr Molins. "The suspect doesn't hesitate to stab several times with impressive determination." The man was arrested outside Paris at the house of a friend who has not been implicated.
"The suspect implicitly confessed when he told police, 'I know why you're here'," said Mr Molins.
"The nature of the attack, the fact that it happened three days after the London attack, and a prayer that was said shortly before the attack make us believe that he acted in the name of his religious ideology and that his wish was to attack someone representing the state. "
The suspect, who was unemployed and homeless, was identified through DNA he left on the plastic juice bottle, said Christophe Crepin, a spokesman for the police union, UNSA.
Mr Molins said the man came under scrutiny after a street prayer in 2007, and authorities had his DNA profile on record after a series of petty crimes committed when he was a minor. He converted to radical Islam at around age 18, Mr Molins added. Under French antiterrorism laws, he can be held for 96 hours without charge.
The French soldier is recovering from his injuries and has been released from the hospital.
French security forces have been on heightened alert since the military intervened in Mali this year to regain territory seized by extremists. Yet even before this, French soldiers were considered possible targets at home by local radicals.
Last year, three paratroopers were killed by a man described as a French-born Islamist extremist.
Mohamed Merah went on to attack a Jewish school in southern France, killing a rabbi and three children in March last year, shortly before he was killed during a gun battle with police.