On Saturday morning, at approximately 11:00am local time, 33-year-old Abdallah Ahmed-Osman fatally stabbed two people in the southeastern French town of Romans-sur-Isere, in what authorities are investigating as a terrorist incident. According to officials, Ahmed-Osman entered a tobacco shop shortly before 11:00am local time, where he attacked the owner and at least one other individual. He then proceeded on foot toward the town center, randomly attacking bystanders at a nearby butcher shop and a bakery, which ultimately left four wounded and one in critical condition. Ahmed-Osman was arrested approximately 15 minutes later, after he was allegedly found “on his knees praying in Arabic.” French authorities have described Ahmed-Osman as a Sudanese national who was granted asylum in 2017 and was previously unknown to police or intelligence agencies.
The French Counterterrorism Prosecutor's office revealed in a press conference that, during a subsequent search of Ahmed-Osman’s home, authorities located handwritten documents with religious overtones in which the author “complained of living in a country of disbelievers.” However, investigators did not detect any references or connections to any terrorist organizations. Ahmed-Osman faces charges that include assassination and attempted assassination in connection with a terrorist enterprise and criminal terrorist association. While he is believed to have acted alone, two other Sudanese individuals have since been detained for possible questioning in connection to Saturday’s attack.
Saturday’s attack comes as Romans-sur-Isere, as well as all of France, have been placed on lockdown due to the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Since March 17, the entire population has been ordered to stay home unless for emergencies or to purchase essentials. Prior to Saturday’s attack, residents of the small French town were carrying out their permitted daily food shopping. Recent reports released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have warned of the potential for violent extremists to take advantage of the unprecedented measures due to COVID-19. According to a March issue of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS) al-Naba newsletter, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left countries distracted and has placed additional pressure on governments, potentially affecting security measures and the ability of governments to efficiently coordinate response efforts and counterterrorism operations with one another. The ISIS propaganda newsletter identified Paris, London and Brussels as “distracted cities,” and called on jihadists to “concentrate on attempting to free ISIS prisoners” and to “intensify the pressure while countries are weakened.” Although police have not currently detected a direct connection between the suspect in Saturday’s attack and any known terrorist or extremist organizations, the implementation of bladed weapons, such as a knife, is a common tactic for terrorists and lone-wolf attackers. Authorities have increasingly regarded incidents with bladed weapons as a high-alert concern following multiple terror attacks that have occurred across France, the United Kingdom, and the world, involving knives and other inconspicuous sharp objects. France alone has experienced a number of high-profile stabbings in recent months. Earlier this year, in January, a 22-year-old man was shot and killed by responding police after he had stabbed one person fatally and wounded two others in the French town of Villejuif. In October 2019, a civilian employee killed four people in a knife attack at a police headquarters in Paris, France. In August 2019, one person was killed and at least nine others wounded during a knife attack in the city of Villeurbanne near Lyon. Such attacks have become popular among violent actors because they require little to no training, can yield multiple casualties, and feed into extremist propaganda. The unsophisticated nature of these incidents not only makes detection and disruption extremely difficult, but also the threat of similar attacks high for the foreseeable future. The recent attack is also another example of the likelihood of copy-cats, with the potential for individuals to be inspired by publicized attacks or similar incidents.