Anger and questions over how Champs-Elysées gunman was left free after 'threats to kill police officers'

Footage shows moments after suspected terrorist is shot in Paris Footage shows moments after suspected terrorist is shot in Paris
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Anger rose on Friday as questions remained unanswered about why the suspected Champs-Elysées gunman, Karim Cheurfi, was released after being questioned in February over threats to kill police officers.

Counter-terrorist prosecutors placed the 39-year-old French national under preliminary investigation in March, but he was not on the police “S” list of terror suspects. He had a long criminal record and spent more than a decade in prison for attempted murder.  

Police in the southeastern Paris suburb of Melun interrogated him on February 23 after he reportedly made threats on the Telegram online messaging service favoured by Islamist extremists because of its encrypted communications.

Police had been tipped off that he was attempting to procure weapons to attack officers, but released him because of a lack of proof that he had been radicalised or was likely to carry out an act of terrorism, security sources said. Witnesses had also told investigators that they overheard him making threats.

A source close to the investigation said: “This is the dilemma we face. Sometimes we suspect someone but can’t prove anything so we’re forced to release them. You can’t hold someone because simply on suspicion, because you think they may be about to do something.”

Marine Le Pen reacts to the terror attack in Paris Marine Le Pen reacts to the terror attack in Paris
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Even after the tipoffs, Cheurfi’s profile was considered more criminal than terrorist — although a jihadist pamphlet was reportedly found when investigators searched his mother’s home in the Paris suburb of Chelles in the early hours of Friday.

He was not on the “S” list of known terrorist suspects, although he appeared on the counter-terrorist services’ radar at the beginning of the year. Seen as someone with potential Islamist sympathies, he was described as “excessively dangerous and violent”. 

Denis Jacob of the Alternative police union said: “We want to express the sadness and anger of all our colleagues. It isn’t normal that a man already known to police, detained in 2017 and who made verbal threats to kill police officers could have put his threats into action.”

After laying a floral tribute on the Champs-Elysées, where the policeman was shot dead on Thursday night, Mr Jacob added: “The next president of France must ask questions about how individuals with “S” files are treated. There are things that need to be reviewed.”

Mr Jacob promised that police were ready to face the continuing terrorist threat. “We are not afraid and we will continue to be there for the security of our fellow-citizens.”

When Cheurfi was questioned, police reportedly discovered that he had violated the probation conditions imposed after he was given a suspended sentence for theft in 2014, which included psychiatric treatment. 

Sentenced to 20 years in 2003 for attacking three people including two police officers in 2001, his term was shortened in 2005 to 15 years. Legal sources said he was released  in 2013.

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“In prison, he was not flagged up as having been radicalised,” the source said. “Either he didn’t get noticed or he hadn’t become a jihadist at that time. He certainly would have come into contact with Islamists in prison.”

Police union delegates were meeting the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, on Friday to discuss how the police can be better protected. 

The Champs-Elysées shooting was not the first time the  suspected gunman had attacked police, but it was the first time he killed an officer.

Cheurfi shot and wounded a police cadet and his brother in 2001 while driving a stolen car. After being taken in custody, he grabbed another officer’s gun and shot at him.

Three of his relatives were in custody on Friday, a routine procedure after an attack that does not indicate that they are suspected of being accomplices.

A handwritten note praising Isil was found near the gunman’s body and a Koran was recovered from his car.