French anti-terrorism investigators scrambled on Monday to identify a knifeman who used multiple aliases before killing two women at the main train station in Marseille in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
Sunday’s killings in France’s second-biggest city followed a string of stabbings around Europe claimed by, or blamed on Islamist radicals.
The identity of the attacker in Marseille, a man with a record of petty crime who was said by witnesses to have shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest) at the start of his rampage, is still unknown.
Investigators said he appeared to be Tunisian but had gone by eight different names during various brushes with the law, including for shoplifting and illegal weapons possession.
His victims were cousins from the eastern French city of Lyon, both aged 20. One was studying in Marseille and the other was visiting her for the weekend.
One had her throat slit by the knifeman, who was seen on video camera footage striking his first victim from behind and then fleeing – only to return to launch a frenzied attack on her cousin.
IS’s Amaq propaganda agency later said he was ‘from the soldiers of the Islamic State.’
The attacker was shot dead by troops from the 7,000-strong Sentinelle special force deployed to patrol the streets and guard vulnerable sites such as stations, tourist attractions and places of worship.
On Sunday, French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted that he was ‘deeply angered by this barbaric act,’ and said he shared the pain of the families and friends of the victims.
The deaths come as parliament prepares Tuesday to vote on a controversial anti-terror bill that transposes some of the exceptional powers granted to the police under a 22-month-old state of emergency into national law.
Rights groups have warned that this security law reduces judicial oversight over the actions of the police.
Interior minister Gerard Collomb said Sunday evening that the motives of the killer were unclear, but Marseille’s centre-right mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin said that ‘for me it’s a terror attack.’
The latest deaths came with France still under a state of emergency following a string of attacks since 2015 that had claimed 239 lives before Sunday’s incident.
Knives have been the weapon of choice in several assaults, mainly targeting the security forces. In most cases, the attackers were shot dead at the start of their rampage, before they could kill others.
Police evacuated the ornate rail terminus in the heart of Marseille after the attack, temporarily halting all train traffic on some of the country’s busiest lines.
‘I was on the esplanade just in front of the station,’ Melanie Petit, an 18-year-old student, said. ‘I heard someone shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and I saw a man who seemed to be dressed all in black.’
The assailant had no papers on him at the time of the attack, sources close to the investigation said.
Anti-terror prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into ‘killings linked to a terrorist organisation’ and the ‘attempted killing of a public official’.
The incident came only days after IS released a recording of what it said was its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging his followers to strike their enemies in the West.
The French government has deployed troops and its air force to the Middle East and is a leading partner in the US-led international coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, where the jihadists are being driven back.
France has suffered several major terror attacks since January 2015. The worst violence took place in November 2015, when 130 people were killed in synchronised shooting and suicide attacks across Paris.
Eight months later, 86 people were killed when an extremist drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in the resort city of Nice – the first in several attacks around Europe using vehicles as weapons.
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