PARIS — Okay, this particular alleged terrorist turned out to be a putz. But up until the moment he shot himself in the leg and called an ambulance, which brought the police, who found an arsenal in the trunk of his car and a computer with what appeared to be plans for attacks on churches and their congregations—up until that point he was the very model of a modern jihadi killer.
And what is worse, it appears he was acting on direct orders from someone in Syria who may be with Al Qaeda, or ISIS, or some other shadowy group that wants to wreak havoc in the West. The French are calling Sid Ahmed Ghlam, 24, the “remote-control” jihadist.
American officials will study his case, of course, but the American public should take notice, too, because “remote control” is very likely the shape of things to come in the ever-evolving global war by terrorists.
“Never has the threat been so high,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told France Inter Radio on Thursday morning. “This type of individual does not act alone. We have seen with the attacks in January”—the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market—“there are networks; there are those who provide logistical support.”
Ghlam was detained on Sunday after shooting himself in the leg following his alleged killing of a woman in a Paris suburb in an apparent bid to take her car for use in his plot. Since his arrest—made public on Wednesday—French prosecutors and investigators have publicized several details of the case and in many instances linked it to the need for what’s been called the French “Patriot Act” opening the doors ever wider to communications surveillance.
Ghlam, an Algerian citizen who had spent part of his childhood in France and returned to study electrical engineering, reportedly was a model student with a clean record. He only triggered the interest of French authorities late last year when he started talking to acquaintances about going to Syria, and then again in February, when he showed up in Turkey for 10 days and bragged that he was planning to join the jihad. But then he came back.
By then the French police were all over Ghlam’s case, looking at who he associated with, looking at his email traffic, checking what Web sites he visited. Nothing turned up. Still, the cops started watching his movements around France. Again, nothing.
What the authorities were missing, it now appears from the several phones and SIM cards found among Ghlam’s belongings, was a series of text messages sent to the phone of his girlfriend that told him where to find weapons left for him, and what to do with them.
Last week he went to Aulnay-sous-bois, a suburb northeast of Paris, where he found a car parked on the street waiting for him, and keys hidden where he was told to look for them. In the trunk were several automatic rifles and fully loaded clips, along with bullet-proof vests. He took all that back to his room in student housing.
“Several days before the date set for the attack, which was supposed to target at least one church in the town of Villejuif, Sid Ahmed Ghlam started to get cold feet,” according to the daily Le Parisien, which has numerous law enforcement sources. “Convinced—or no doubt threatened by his accomplices—he went Sunday morning to Villejuif.”
There Ghlam came across 33-year-old Aurélie Châtelan, a fitness instructor from northern France whose photographs show a woman with a wide open smile. She was visiting Paris to take a Pilates course. She was early for an appointment and checking her email, sitting in the passenger seat of her car.
We don’t know if Ghlam exchanged words with Châtelan, or whether she pleaded for her life as the mother of a five-year-old girl. But we do know Ghlam is alleged to have killed her with one shot from his 9mm pistol in order to take her car. Apparently he planned to use it for his getaway after he attacked the church and its Sunday morning congregation. But it seems that after he shot her he decided to go back to his own car.
As he slid into the driver’s seat, presumably juggling the same pistol, he shot himself in the leg and started gushing blood. Panicked, now, he called the French equivalent of 911, and when the medics learned he had a gunshot wound they called the police.
In the trunk of Ghlam’s car they found one AK-47 assault rifle with clip, an automatic pistol, a computer with plans for two churches in Villejuif, the addresses of the police stations there, and handwritten notes where one phrase was repeated several times: “With God we will exact retribution,” probably referring to a line in the Quran.
In Ghlam’s room the cops found three more rifles and three more bullet-proof vests, as well as jihadist literature from the so-called Islamic State and also Al Qaeda, according to Le Parisien.
Who gave Ghlam this arsenal? Who sent him his orders?
As yet, the authorities have provided no answers. But there is little doubt that more Ghlams are out there, and they’re just waiting for the SMS that tells them when to act.