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Three Dead After Attack On French Church; The Islamic State Claims Responsibility


Two men attacked a church in Normandy, France, this morning during mass. They took five people hostage, and they killed a priest before French police shot and killed them. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

One of the assailants had been jailed for trying twice to enter Syria and had been placed under surveillance with an electronic bracelet. Reporter Jake Cigainero is with us now. And first, Jake, briefly describe what happened inside the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

JAKE CIGAINERO: Hi, Robert. Yes - so this morning around 9:43 during a daily mass service, two men entered with knives and attacked the priest and slit his throat. One of the nuns who was attending the service saw the two men enter with the knives, and before they attacked the priest, she was able to run out and raise the alarm with authorities. And so police responded very quickly within about 20 minutes but unfortunately not before this priest had been killed.

SIEGEL: Now, as I mentioned, one of the attackers was known to the police. What do we know about him?

CIGAINERO: That's right. So he has formally been identified according to the French Press Agency, and French media are calling him Adel K. Apparently he tried to go to Syria twice last year and was stopped the first time in Munich and the second time in the Istanbul airport. He was detained and then questioned for association with terrorist groups. And then he was released earlier this year in March with an electronic bracelet to keep tabs on him.

But we do know that he was allowed to leave his house in the morning on a daily basis. So that's when he took this opportunity to attack this church.

SIEGEL: Now, one detail I've heard attributed to people who were in the church was that the two men recorded themselves inside the church and were saying something in Arabic inside the church. What was that about?

CIGAINERO: That's right. One of the nuns said that the two men made the priests kneel and then filmed themselves slitting his throat, and they yelled Allahu akbar, which is, God is the greatest, God is great in Arabic.

SIEGEL: In the last three major terror attacks in France - the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the killings at the Bataclan Concert Hall and other places in Paris and then the Bastille Day attack in Nice - in each case, one or more of the attackers was already known to French anti-terrorism services or had a police record. Does this raise questions of whether the anti-terror police forces in France and the state emergency forces are doing enough to prevent these attacks?

CIGAINERO: You know, after the Nice attack, there's been a huge uproar from people saying that the police and that the government particularly didn't do enough to prevent the Nice attack even though the attacker was not known to intelligence services. He was on the radar of local police for domestic violence, but he wasn't known to intelligence services who monitor potential terrorists.

And so I think France is still in shock over what's happened in this small town church today, and it's only a matter of days before they start accusing the government again.

SIEGEL: Was the idea of an attack on a church something that French authorities were expecting at all?

CIGAINERO: The country's been concerned about the threat against churches for about a year. Last year, authorities arrested a man named Sid Ahmed Ghlam, who's a 24-year-old Algerian man who had amassed a trove of weapons in his Paris apartment, and he was thought to be planning an attack on at least one church. So authorities have been on high alert across the country for all places of worship, not just Christian churches but synagogues and mosques as well.

SIEGEL: What did to French President Francois Hollande have to say about this today?

CIGAINERO: Francois Hollande said this is a vile act, and he said to attack a Christian church is to profane France. He said the terror alert is still very high and will remain very high, especially now that we're facing this group he calls Daesh, ISIS, which has declared war. And Prime Minister Manuel Valls said it's an attempt to provoke a religious war.

SIEGEL: Reporter Jake Cigainero in Paris - Jake, thanks for talking with us.

CIGAINERO: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.