ISIS-inspired church attacker was on watch list and wore electronic tag, French officials say

SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France – Two attackers backing the Islamic State stormed a village church during Mass in northern France on Tuesday, taking hostages and slitting the throat of a 86-year-old priest before police commandos shot and killed the assailants, authorities said.

The Islamic State's Amaq news agency described the attackers as "soldiers" of the militant group, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist activity. But it was not immediately clear whether the assailants had direct contact with the Islamic State.

At least one of the attackers appeared to be on a watch list, which required him to wear an electronic tag to allow security officials to track his movements, said a police official cited by The Associated Press. The AP said the official spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information about the case.

A French news channel, BFM-TV, carried a similar report, adding that the attacker tried to reach Syria, but was turned back at the Turkish border and was then jailed by French authorities. He was released in March, the report said.

French President François Hollande – who traveled to the church near the city of Rouen in the Normandy region – said the attackers had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

The assault also will likely put further pressure on European security officials less than two weeks after 84 people were killed in a terrorist attack, apparently inspired by the Islamic State, in Nice, France. In addition, the Islamic State claimed a connection with two attackers in Germany who wounded 20 people this month. Two other attacks in Germany that killed 10 people in the past week had no evident connection with the group.

Authorities in Europe had previously concentrated on suspected militants who returned from Islamic State-held territory in Syria or Iraq. But many recent attacks appear to have been carried out by individuals radicalized by Islamic State propaganda and who pledged loyalty on their own.


In Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, about 35 miles southeast of the port of Le Havre, French soldiers patrolled the narrow streets and mourners gathered in the main square. Police cordoned off the area around the church, whose main entrance is an arched wooden door under a stone tower capped by a peaked roof.

Another person held by the hostage-takers at the church suffered life-threatening injuries, said Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.

Alexandre Joly, 44, described the slain priest – identified by church officials as Jacques Hamel – as "like an attentive grandfather" in the village, on the banks of the Seine as it begins to snake toward the English Channel.

"He loved marrying young people," said Joly. "He saw a purpose in it, and he had so much wisdom to impart."

The area also reflected the multicultural side of France. A mosque in a nearby town was built for Muslims in the region, including families that moved from North Africa decades ago.

Fatima, 58, an Algerian-born woman who said she lived in the village for 40 years, joined the crowds in the main square to pay homage "for the memory of the priest."

"We are with him," said Fatima, who only gave her first name. "All Muslims are with him."

France remains under an extended state of emergency after a truck rampage through Bastille Day crowds in the Riviera city of Nice on July 14, killing 84 people and injuring more than 300.

Hollande said the country needed to use "all means" against the Islamic State, but gave no details on possible new crackdowns or expansion of French support to the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the militants' strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, denounced the "barbarous killing" of the French priest.

Lombardi said Pope Francis was shaken by "the pain and horror of this absurd violence" and "condemned, in the most radical way, any form of hate."

The Islamic State has carried out systematic persecution and abuses against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq, including Yazidi villages and Christian communities that date back to the early centuries of the faiths. In some areas, groups of Yazidi women have been forced into slavery by the militants.

Last year, the Vatican's top diplomat at the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, decried "genocide" against Christians and other religious minorities at the hands of the Islamic State.

The militants also have destroyed pre-Islamic temples and other ancient sites in Syria and Iraq – including a more than 1,400-year-old Christian monastery near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

But attacks linked to the group in the West and elsewhere have so far concentrated on public places and tourist areas.

Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, called the bloodshed here "obviously a drama for the Catholic community, for the Christian community."

French officials have linked at least one previous suspect with plotting a possible church attack.

In April 2015, an Algerian man, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, was arrested in connection with the slaying of woman. He was accused of putting together a cache of weapons and body armor. French authorities claim he planned to attack a church in the Paris suburb of Villejuif.