Just after 14:00 local time (13:00 British time), within four-and-a-half hours of the attack beginning, Amaq claimed it for the Islamic State:
Insider source to Amaq Agency: “The 2 executors of the attack on a church in Normandy, France were soldiers of the Islamic State. They executed the operation in response to calls to target countries belonging to the crusader coalition.”
On 27 July, the Islamic State released a video (screenshotted above) of the two killers, Adel Kermiche and Abdelmalik Petitjean, giving bay’a (allegiance) to the organization, conclusively demonstrating that they had contact with IS before the attack.
One of the killers was named as Adel Kermiche, 19. Kermiche was arrested en route to Syria twice: first in Germany in March 2015 and then in Turkey in May 2015. On his return to France after the arrest in Turkey, Kermiche was imprisoned, before—over the objections of the prosecutors—being released under house arrest ten months later, in March 2016. Kermiche’s passport was confiscated and he was placed on an electronic tag, which was turned off only during the hours he was permitted to leave the house, between 8:30 and 12:30 during the week and 14:00 and 18:00 at the weekends.
Kermiche had tried to get to Syria using his brother’s identification documents the first time and his cousin’s ID the second time, according to the French prosecutor speaking on 26 July. Kermiche also had to report to police one-a-week to ensure he was professionally active, had his passport confiscated to try to prevent him leaving the country, and was also banned from leaving the region.
Though there were all the usual reports of Kermiche and his family being “ordinary” and “not even religious,” behind this there are as ever more troubling signs. “Everyone knows that this kid was a ticking time bomb,” said one neighbour. Another said that Kermiche “was crazy, he was talking to himself.” More importantly, one of the men who tried to help Kermiche after his release from prison said Kermiche “only spoke about religion,” and while this man and Kermiche’s family “did everything to try and get him out [of the circle of IS supporters],” it was to no avail: “It was like he was inside a bubble.” It is by no means exceptional in these cases for the family to be well-aware of the path their relative is on and to either support it to one degree or another, to fear even more telling anybody about it, or to believe they are able to control it. While Kermiche’s mother insists he was radicalized within three months, he was a supporter of IS no later than March 2015—fully sixteen months ago.
Subsequently L’Express discovered Kermiche’s Telegram channel, which had about 200 followers, in which he had expressed in audio recordings plans for a knife attack in a church for months before he carried it out.
- Kermiche wanted to create a group of the “brothers” in Rouen on the model of Sharia4Belgium
- Kermiche had said he would show the “other brothers” who had said his was a “commitment from the sofa” (engagement depuis un canapé) that he was a real jihadist.
- On 19 July, Kermiche gave a monologue on the difficulty of getting to the caliphate and therefore the desirability of conducting an attack at home. Kermiche’s statement—and his subsequent actions—are in-line with the address Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) gave on 21 May 2016, which began this wave of attacks over Ramadan, in which he said: “If the tawaghit have shut the door of hijra in your faces, then open the door of jihad in theirs.”
- On 20 July, Kermiche posted an audio message, Excuses au frere de dawla (Apologies to the brothers of the [Islamic] State). It transpires that Kermiche had been not only not pro-IS, but specifically anti-IS and pro-al-Qaeda as recently as 11 June 2016, getting into a squabble on Telegram with the administrators of Ansar at-Tawhid, a well-known pro-IS Francophone channel. Kermiche had even referred to them as “Khawarij“. “Some time ago, I shared words that I thought that the Dawla were khawarijs, that there was a lot of misguidance, that they killed Muslims, etc. Then, I did a little more research,” said Kermiche. Kermiche then began sharing the Ansar channel’s output and changed his profile picture to an image of IS’s caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).
- On 25 July, the day before the attack on the church, Kermiche had promised “big stuff” (des gros trucs) and called on his “brothers and sisters” to massively share his Telegram page. Kermiche promised pictures or videos and said those who shared such media would be rewarded.
- On 26 July, the day of the attack, Kermiche posted one message at 8:30 urging his followers to “share what follows” (partager ce qui va suivre), and logged back in at 9:46, moments after he entered the church, but did not post anything.
The Muslim community in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray was reported on 31 July to be refusing to bury Kermiche. Mohammed Karabila, president of the local Muslim cultural association and imam of one of the town’s mosques, told Le Parisien: “We’re not going to taint Islam with this person. We won’t participate in preparing the body or the burial.” The mayor makes the final decision on whether Kermiche can be buried in the town. Kermiche was buried in a non-denominational cemetery in the Puiseux-Pontoise suburb, north-west of Paris, on 19 August.
The other killer was reported initially by the prosecutor as having been born in Algeria and being a minor, born in 1999 (i.e. 16 or 17), the younger brother of a man wanted for going to Iraq or Syria on Kermiche’s passport. A source told The Telegraph on 27 July that the second killer was Abdel Malik P., that he was from Savoie in south-eastern France (more than 400 miles from Rouen), and that he was actually 19-years-old. An identity card belonging to Malik was found in Kermiche’s parents’ home on 26 July. “The times have changed. You will suffer what our brothers and sisters are suffering. We are going to destroy your country,” Petitjean said in the video. “Brothers go out with a knife, whatever is needed, attack them, kill them en masse.”
French prosecutors soon confirmed Petitjean’s identity, though his mother, Yamina, told BFM television: “I know my kid, he is kind. I did not produce a devil. He never talked about IS.”
Petitjean was not known to French authorities until a tip-off from the Turkish government after he landed in Istanbul, where he was allowed to continue on his way after questioning, on 10 June. Petitjean flew home the next day. “There was no file at this point, he wasn’t known to us,” a French source says. Petitjean was finally put on the “S files” after a second tip from a foreign intelligence service on 22 June, but Petitjean was not put on the file by name. A photograph of Petitjean was circulated and he was said to be somebody planning an attack.
Petitjean completed his Baccalaureate at the Marlioz high school in Aix-les-Bains, where he lived. This is close to Chambéry Airport or Chambéry-Savoie Airport, where Petitjean began working full-time as a porter (baggage handler) in December 2015, remaining at his post until April 2016.
The previous IS attempt to attack churches in France, in April 2015, was also by an Algerian, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, who quite possibly had the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on his hit-list.
The Islamic State Connects the Killers
It now seems clear that Kermiche and Petitjean were not long-time acquaintances. There is no long background of contact showing their friendship. Petitjean moved from Aix-les-Bain in the Alps in southeastern France to Kermiche’s town in the north of the country three days before the attack [23 June] and seems to have stayed at Kermiche’s house.
One avenue of investigation that was being pursued was whether the Ansar at-Tawhid channel connected Kermiche and Petitjean.
A French security source said Kermiche was in contact with Maxime Hauchard, a convert to Islam who frequented the mosque in Kermiche’s native Saint-Etienne-du-Touvray. Hauchard went to Syria in August 2013, and has acted as a propagandist-recruiter for them ever since. A move from this kind of media work, which involves outreach to foreign fighters, to a position in Amn al-Kharji (foreign intelligence), remote-controlling European operatives, is not that much of a stretch. And Hauchard has substantial advantages as a “guide” for Kermiche, among them a common language—probably the single most important determinant factor in IS’s networks in Europe—and Hauchard being a Normandy native, so likely having some knowledge of the local area that IS could use when planning the attack.
Investigators became increasingly sure that Rachid Kassim was the operative who connected Kermiche and Petitjean. Kassim, a Frenchman born to a Yemeni father and Algerian mother, grew up mostly in Algeria after his parents divorced when he was five-years-old. Kassim, who certainly has made the move from media propagandist-recruiter to Amn al-Kharji guide, was instrumental in stewarding Larossi Abballa toward stabbing to death an off-duty police officer and his wife in Magnanville, Paris, in June.
On 29 June, a judicial official announced that three people were in custody related to the Normandy attack. A cousin of Petitjean’s, “Farid K.,” was arrested on suspicion of being aware in advance of the attack—this information was gleaned from online activity such a social media. A 16-year-old was arrested just after the attack and remained in custody. And a third person was arrested on 28 June, a twenty-one-year-old Syrian refugee in the Allier region of central France, because a photocopy of his passport was found at Kermiche’s house. Petitjean’s sister and her companion were taken in for questioning after the attack but have now been released.
On 10 August 2016, judicial sources announced that a 21-year-old man had been arrested in connection with the Normandy Church attack on 8 August in Toulouse. By this point, three people have been charged in connection with the Normandy attack. The second man charged had been in contact with Kermiche and Petitjean through Telegram and traveled from Toulouse to Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray to be in town for the night of the attack. One of the two men previously charged is also being charged for trying to travel to Syria in June with Petitjean to join IS.