Annecy attack: What do we know about the man in custody?

Four toddlers and two adults were stabbed in an apparently random attack in a play park in the French Alpine town of Annecy on Thursday.

Annecy attack: What do we know about the man in custody?
The scene of the attack in the Jardins de l'Europe park in Annecy, in the French Alps. Photo by OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

Four children – aged between 22 months and three years old – were seriously injured in the attack, which happened in a play area close to the lake in the French Alpine town of Annecy on Thursday morning.

Two of the victims were tourists; a British toddler and a Dutch child.

Two adults – including a 78-year-old man – were also injured. The children and the older victim remain in a critical condition.

READ ALSO What do we know about the victims of the Annecy attack?

A screen grab taken from a video obtained by AFPTV shows, left, a man armed with a knife running away after he attacked a group of pre-school children playing by a lake in the French Alps city of Annecy. The man on the right is the ‘backpack hero’ – a local man who tackled the attacker. Photo by AFPTV / AFP

The presumed attacker was arrested at the scene by local police, after being tackled by a local resident.

Investigations are still ongoing, but prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said that, at this stage, there is no indication of a terrorist motive for the attack. 

The man in custody is a 31-year-old who is originally from Syria, but who has been living in Europe for the past 10 years. 

He has been named in French media as Abdalmasih H – following the French convention of using only the first name and initial of suspects who have not been convicted of a crime – and describes himself as a Syrian Christian asylum seeker.

During the attack he was heard shouting “in the name of Jesus Christ”, in English.

Until recently he had been living in Sweden – he arrived in Sweden in summer 2013 and claimed asylum. This was eventually granted and he was given refugee status.

During his time in Sweden he married and studied Swedish and English, according to his ex wife, who spoke to media on condition of anonymity.

Swedish authorities say that apart from a fine relating to benefits claims – details were not provided – he was not known to law enforcement and lived a “regular life”.

In November 2022 – recently divorced – he left Sweden and travelled to France.

He had been rejected for Swedish citizenship – although he retained his refugee status and right to remain in Sweden.

The attacker’s mother, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, said she was “in a state of shock”.

She said that her former daughter-in-law had said her son was depressed.

“He applied for nationality but was rejected, presumably because he had served in the Syrian army,” she told AFP, adding “that probably drove him mad”.

Asylum application

Shortly after arrival in France he requested asylum, but was rejected because he already had refugee status in Sweden. His application was formally rejected on June 4th.

According to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, he had also requested asylum in Switzerland and Italy, “for reasons not well explained”.

He added that the timing of the asylum rejection and the attack was a “troubling coincidence”.

People whose asylum requests are rejected have one month to decide whether to appeal – if they do appeal, they can stay in the country while the appeal is considered. If an appeal is filed, or the appeal is rejected, applications are usually served with an OQTF (Obligation de quitter le territoire français) which is an order to leave the country. This usually gives people 30 days to leave the country.

People granted asylum in one EU country have the right to travel to other countries within the Schengen zone.

He was, therefore, living legally in France at the time of the attack, and arrived in the country through legal channels. 

Abdalmasih H is described as being homeless during his time in France, although his ex wife says he had told her four months prior to the attack that he was living in a church. She added that he had left Sweden because he had been unable to get Swedish nationality.

During his stay in France he was not known to law enforcement and has not accessed mental health services. 

The prosecutor said that he was not under the influence of drink or drugs at the time of the attack, and he will be examined by a psychiatrist on Friday. 

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France to post scores of new gendarmerie units to rural areas

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced plans to create 238 new gendarmerie brigades and employ more than 2,100 gendarmes by 2027, in a bid to fight crime in suburban and rural France.

France to post scores of new gendarmerie units to rural areas

During a visit to Lot-et-Garonne on Monday, Macron presented a plan that he described as “historic” – to set up 238 new gendarmerie brigades between November 2023 and 2027. 

These brigades, which will be staffed through the recruitment of some 2,100 gendarmes, will be concentrated on the edge of cities and in rural areas. 93 will be ‘fixed’ – or based in permanent stations – with each staffed by a dozen or so gendarmes. The remaining 145 will be ‘mobile’, staffed by six gendarmes per station. 

There will be at least one new brigade in each département and overseas territory. 

Macron posted a map of where these gendarmes – who unlike the police are technically part of the army – would be deployed, online. The dark blue dots represent fixed brigades, while the light blue dots represent mobile ones. 

The French Presidency said that the location of each new brigade was decided based on “economic, demographic and operational criteria” – the latter referring to the number of offenses recorded in each area. 

The wider context  

In 2022, Macron’s government has promised to recruit an additional 8,500 law enforcement officers (gendarmes and police) by the end of his second term in office. These new gendarmerie brigades will only account for about a quarter of that. 

The government has also promised to double the number of law enforcement officers focused on policing the roads and public transport through to 2032; and to boost the budget of the Interior Ministry by €15 billion over five years. The government says this extra funding is necessary to deal with evolving crime risks and extra requirements engendered by the hosting of mass events like the Olympic games.  

Extra law-and-order spending comes at a moment of tense relations between the police and the public in France – particularly following the killing of teenager, Nahel M, at point blank range by a police officer in June. 

READ ALSO – Gendarmes to ‘policiers’ – who does what in the French police force?