A 29 year old man drove a red Peugeot 307 at a mosque in Valence, France, on New Year’s day: no one yet knows why.
Initially it seemed like a terror attack. The French army has been on guard outside a number of sensitive locations since the Paris massacres on 13th November – with around 10,000 security personnel involved in this duty. There were four soldiers on routine duty in the car park outside the mosque in Valence, a town south of Lyons on New Year’s Day. At around 2.30pm, just as worshippers were heading to the mosque for prayer time, a car drove towards the building. Soldiers shouted a warning and it veered away. It then made a second pass: it appeared to be heading for the mosque and the solidiers shot at it. The car managed to strike one of the soldiers on the leg and ended up in a ditch, bullet holes visible in both sides and the windscreen. A stray bullet hit the lower leg of a 72 year old man who had been going to the mosque for prayer.
The driver was taken to hospital, where he remains with two serious but not life-threatening bullet wounds in his arm and leg. So far, so it would seem like a serious islamophobic attack. However, within a day a French prosecutor who was in charge of investigating the incident announced that the driver was a French citizen of Tunisian descent, a Muslim living near Lyons who was not known to the French authorities as an extremist – and was acting on his own. Although his motives remained unclear, the prosecutor concluded that the driver was acting on his own and this was not a terror act. Sources at the mosque suggest that the driver may have been trying to ram the soldiers rather than the mosque. The prosecutor is considering charging him with “attempted murders against persons holding state authority”.
After the incident, Nicolas Daragon, Mayor of Valence, confirmed that the mosque was known locally as a moderate mosque with no history of causing trouble. He also said that the car appeared to have been trying to ram the soldiers rather than the mosque and commended them for their calm response which had limited injury and damage. Commenting on the incident on French TV news, he said that some of the soldiers had been thrown to the ground by their efforts to avoid the car – but they had fired warning shots before firing directly at the car and that even when they did fire at the car they were not following a “shoot to kill” policy but were shooting to try to disable the car. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian all spoke out, praising the soldiers’ actions too.
Abdullah Imam Dliouah, the imam of the mosque, also spoke out. He issued a formal statement at 5pm on the day, saying, “The mosque officials and worshippers are deeply shocked by this act. The soldiers protecting the mosque are appreciated by the worshippers and we condemn this aggression towards those who ensure our safety. We wish to reiterate that this act, despite its gravity, will not dampen our resolve to promote us living together, as we have always done.”
He also confirmed that the driver was not known to the mosque authorities. The mosque is one of the largest in the area and has room for 3,000 worshippers. It had not received any threats in the past.
Anouar Kbibech, president of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Council of the Muslim Faith) appealed for the public to remain calm and vigilant. He added that the military personnel guarding sensitive buildings were appreciated by everyone in France.