PARIS — A student said he warned his teacher about showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemous by Muslims, days before he was decapitated on a Paris street in what French President Emmanuel Macron called an “Islamist terrorist attack.”
Martial Lusiela, 15, told NBC News he was “shocked” by Friday afternoon’s attack in the middle-class suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, north-west of the French capital.
“I didn’t expect a decapitation — it went too far,” he said, speaking with the permission of his parents, shortly after the incident that left his 47-year-old history teacher dead.
French anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard identified the victim as Samuel P.
Ricard told reporters on Saturday that the attacker, who he identified as Abdoullakh Aboutezidovitch A., was an 18-year-old Chechen refugee. He said he had been armed with a knife and an airsoft gun that fired plastic pellets. He was shot dead by police shortly after the incident.
Born in Moscow, the teenager had been granted a 10-year residency in France and was not known to intelligence services, Ricard said.
A text claiming responsibility for the attack and a photograph of the victim were found on the suspect’s phone, he said, adding that the suspect had been seen at the school asking students about the teacher, and the headmaster had also received several threatening phone calls.
Ricard said Samuel had sustained multiple injuries and that an investigation for murder with a suspected terrorist motive, had been opened.
On Saturday morning, floral tributes were laid outside the College Bois d’Aulne, where Samuel had taught. Others held signs saying, “I am a teacher.”
Student Luisela, said he had been in Samuel’s class earlier this month, when the civics teacher had shown pupils the caricatures published by the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015,which are considered blasphemous by Muslims. Islam prohibits images of the prophet, asserting that they lead to idolatry.
“We said to the teacher it was not good to show photos like this and that it would cause a huge problem,” Lusiela said. “It’s not a caricature you should show to the class, because there are Muslims in the class.”
Nine people were taken into custody for questioning as part of the investigation, including four members of the attackers family, a spokesperson for France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said Saturday.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Samuel “was the victim of an Islamist terrorist attack,” speaking from the scene of the incident late Friday.
“One of our fellow citizens was assassinated today because he was teaching, he was teaching pupils about freedom of expression,” Macron told reporters.
“Our compatriot was flagrantly attacked,” he said. “They won’t win… We will act. Firmly, And quickly. You can count on my determination.”
The attack came as Macron’s government continues to work on a bill to address Islamic radicals. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with up to 5 million members, Islam is the country’s second largest religion.
Part of that population is made up of Chechens. In the 1990s, two wars in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus, triggered a wave of emigration and many fled to western Europe.
Muslim leaders in France have widely condemned Friday’s incident, which carried echoes of the attack five years ago on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The outlet published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, unleashing divisions that are still casting a pall over French society.
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Less than a month ago, a man originally from Pakistan used a meat cleaver to attack and wound two people who were on a cigarette break outside the offices where Charlie Hebdo was based at the time of the 2015 attack.
The controversy of the cartoons was revived last month when Charlie Hebdo decided to re-publish them to coincide with the start of the trial of accomplices in the 2015 attack.
Al-Qaeda, the militant Islamist group that claimed responsibility for those killings, threatened to attack Charlie Hebdo again after it republished the cartoons.
The magazine said last month it republished the images to assert its right to freedom of expression, and to show it would not be cowed into silence by violent attacks. That stance was backed by many prominent French politicians and public figures.
Nancy Ing and Matt Bradley reported from Paris. Adela Suliman reported from London.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.