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France seeks terror charges in Islamic-State-like beheading case

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Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters

(Read caption) A man supposed to be the suspect who held over an attack against a gas company site is escorted by police officers during investigations in Saint-Priest, near Lyon, France, June 28, 2015. Yassin Salhi told detectives he had killed Herve Cornara in a parking area before arriving at the plant in Saint Quentin-Fallavier, 30 km (20 miles) south of Lyon, where he attempted to cause an explosion on Friday, the source told Reuters.

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France’s chief public prosecutor announced Tuesday that terrorism charges will be investigated in the case of a French national suspected of attacking a gas plant in the southern city of Lyon last week after first beheading his boss. 

Yassin Salhi, a driver for a transport company, was arrested at the plant Friday allegedly after attempting to ram his van into gas canisters at the plant, apparently hoping to blow up the building.  

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The morning of the attack on the US-owned gas facility Mr. Salhi allegedly sought out and attacked his boss, knocked him unconscious, then later beheaded him and sent a photo to a friend in Syria, according to French police.

Francois Molins, the chief prosecutor, said the attack and the beheading were Islamic State trademarks and said that the photos Salhi sent were to another French national suspected of having joined IS. 

Through his lawyer Salhi denies he was motivated by terrorism, according to the Associated Press, and said he does not remember the beheading or sending any photos.

Mr. Molins countered that, "According to him [Salhi] his motive was only personal and not terrorist. One does not exclude the other.... He decapitated his victim, he hung the head on a chain, and he wanted to get the maximum publicity possible."

France’s pursuit of the terror charge category is the second since the high-profile Paris shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine and at a kosher market. It highlights what is often described as a growing terror problem in France, where there has been a spike in the number of young men traveling for jihad in the Middle East.

In April, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said at least five domestic attacks had been thwarted since the beginning of the year.

On Sunday, Mr. Valls said that the world was engaged in a war against terrorism:  “We cannot lose this war because it’s fundamentally a war of civilization. It’s our society, our civilization that we are defending.”

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Valls noted that the problem was not only a French one, adding that 5,000 European citizens were fighting alongside terror groups in conflicts across the world, and that by the end of this year there could be 10,000 Europeans fighting for IS. France, with a long history of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, has a larger pool of fighters ready to travel to Syria and Iraq where IS is based. 

There have been efforts in France to prevent the outflow and recruitment of fighters, as the Monitor reported in February:

Most European governments have decided that “prevention is better than cure,” but only after disasters. The Dutch government launched a slew of counterradicalization programs after an Islamist militant shot and stabbed Theo van Gogh to death as the filmmaker rode his bicycle to work in 2004.

The British authorities set up their own preventive scheme in the wake of suicide bombings in July 2005 that killed 52 people. The French government launched an anti-jihad website at the end of January.

Though Europe’s security services clearly have a key role to play in preventing Islamic-inspired terrorism, they are often overwhelmed by the challenge: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says nearly 3,000 potential French jihadis need constant surveillance but the General Directorate for Internal Security has only 3,800 agents. The government has promised to bolster the security services, adding 1,100 positions over the next three years.