A police manhunt involving 720 officers has mobilised across the French region of Alsace to capture Cherif Chekatt, the suspect sought for the killing of three people and wounding of more than a dozen others on Tuesday evening in Strasbourg.
French experts have raised questions over what drove Chekatt to violence. The Christmas market incident has evoked memories of Saleh Abdesalam, who managed to evade European authorities for almost four months from late 2015. Abdeslam had been the mastermind of the Paris attacks that saw more than 130 people slaughtered.
Experience of conflict in Iraq and Syria had bound Abdeslam and his accomplices together as an ideologically committed ISIS cell. Chekatt’s biography reads more like that of a street thug. A full time criminal, who had served jail time in France, Germany and Switzerland.
Court documents implicate him in the burglary of a dental clinic near Frankfurt, and of a pharmacy in Engen, close to the Swiss border in 2016. In 2011 he served two years for reportedly “stabbing a teenager”. Yet as heinous as they may be, none are acts of Islamist terror. According to the French press, investigators are trying to establish when Chekatt – who was reported to have shouted Allahu Akbar during the attack -- shifted from street thug to holy warrior.
Born in Strasbourg, Chekatt was one of millions of citizens of North African origin, known in French as Les Maghrebians. His parents are both from Morocco.
French police have said Chekatt was wanted for an alleged murder in the town of Eckbolsheim, located in north eastern France, in August – reportedly an armed robbery that went array. An attempt had been made to arrest him just hours before he wrought bloodshed on the Christmas market in Strasbourg.
Yet police officers arriving at Chekatt’s apartment found he had scarpered, though they seized a number of weapons including a rifle with ammunition, a grenade and four knives.
In his police mug shot, a scruffy, unshaven Chekatt stares blankly at the camera. A darkened spot on the top of his forehead, the only indication of his recently-found extremist leanings, which prosecutors believe he developed in jail.
His delinquency appears to have started young, French media reported his first contact with the police came at the age of just 10.
This religious inclination became apparent during a recent stretch in a French jail for burglary. His proselyting and religious behaviour showed “signs of radicalisation,” said public prosecutor Rémy Heitz.
“In prison he encouraged the practice of religion in a radical form, but there was nothing in his way of life to suggest he was planning to act,” said junior interior minister, Laurent Nuñez.
Yet documents suggest his radicalisation went beyond a personal religious conviction. Files from Paris’ General Directorate for Internal Security suggest he was involved in efforts to provide support to militants in the Middle East. Almost 1,000 French citizens are believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years to join ISIS.
It was as a result of this he was added to Fiché-S, a national list of those French authorities believe may serve as a threat to national security.
The advisory list numbers some 20,000, yet the vast majority are under no sort of surveillance or monitoring.
It is a cliché, that those associated with violent crime and terrorism are often described by those that knew them as quiet, shy perhaps - characteristics that would appear to put them at odds with the crimes they commit, such was the case with Chekatt too. “He was quiet. He didn’t speak much and was a bit of a loner; he didn’t hang around unless he was with his brothers and father,” said one of his neighbours in the housing block of Les Potiers. “He seemed normal. Just a normal guy.”
Others weren’t so sure of the authorities claims he had been radicalised, as another neighbour, known only as Zak, told a British newspaper. “For us, he wasn’t radicalised, he was a thug”.