The investigation into the murder of a French teacher for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class turned to Syria on Thursday, where the killer was reportedly in contact with a Russian-speaking fighter there.
Seven people, including two teenagers who helped the killer identify his victim, have been charged with being complicit in a “terrorist murder” after 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov beheaded Samuel Paty on the outskirts of Paris on Friday.
Anti-terrorism investigators established that Anzorov, who moved to France with his family from the Russian republic as a child, had been in contact with a fighter in Syria, a source close to the case said.
The identity of the Russian-speaking fighter was not yet known, the source added.
France paid homage to Paty on Wednesday with President Emmanuel Macron saying the history and geography teacher had been slain by “cowards” for representing the secular, democratic values of the French Republic.
“Islamists want to take our future,” Macron said. “They will never have it.”
Le Parisien newspaper reported on Thursday that Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib, a rebel holdout in northwestern Syria.
Idlib is controlled by the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, but has also become the refuge for several splinter groups.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported the presence of thousands of foreign nationals, including French, British and Chechen fighters in the region.
“The Chechens in Idlib have their own independent factions, but they have allied themselves with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham,” said the Syrian Observatory’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
In an audio message in Russian immediately after Paty’s killing, Anzorov said he “avenged the prophet” whom the teacher had shown “in an insulting way”.
In the recording, which contains several references to the Quran as well as the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, he also said: “Brothers, pray that Allah accepts me as a martyr.”
The message was published on social media in a video, accompanied by two tweets, one showing the victim’s severed head and another in which Anzorov confessed to the murder.
Moments later he was shot dead by police.
Tensions between the state and France’s Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe, have deepened. They were already on a downward trend after Macron on October 2 launched a plan against what he called “Islamist separatism” and said Islam was “in crisis” across the world.
Muslims fear Paty’s death is already being weaponised to advance a government policy they worry conflates Islam with “terrorism”.
Paty had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson about free speech.
Muslims believe any depiction of the prophet is blasphemous as he is deeply revered and any kind of visual image is forbidden. The caricatures were perceived as linking him with terrorism.
Paty, 47, became the target of an online hate campaign over his choice of lesson material – the same images that unleashed a bloody assault by gunmen on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
Police have carried out dozens of raids since the crime, while the government has ordered the six-month closure of a mosque outside Paris and dissolved the Sheikh Yassin Collective, a group they said supported Hamas.
Paty’s beheading was the second knife attack in the name of avenging the Prophet Muhammad since a trial of alleged accomplices in the Charlie Hebdo attack started last month.
The killing has prompted an outpouring of emotion in France, with tens of thousands taking part in rallies countrywide in defence of free speech and the right to mock religion.
“We will not give up cartoons,” Macron vowed at Wednesday’s ceremony at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
An opinion poll by the Ifop institute on Thursday found nearly 80 percent of those questioned said it was appropriate for teachers to use cartoons making fun of religion in the classroom.
The crackdown has echoes of France’s response to the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris by ISIL. Human rights groups criticised those measures, which saw mass arrests and raids under emergency rule, saying they yielded few results and left Muslims feeling like second-class citizens.
The President of the Conference of Imams in France on Thursday condemned last week’s beheading. “I am hurt in my heart and in my soul and in my religion to see barbarians, criminals killing someone, a teacher, just for a caricature. It is a disgrace,” said Hassen Chalghoumi.