On March 23, in the scenic medieval city of Carcassonne in the south of France, Redouane Lakdim hijacked a car, killing the passenger and wounding the driver. He drove to a police barracks, where he unsuccessfully attempted to run over four officers returning from a jog. He then opened fire, seriously wounding one. Less than an hour later, he entered a supermarket in the neighboring village of Trebes armed with a hunting knife, a handgun, and three homemade bombs. After killing one customer and the supermarket’s butcher and sending dozens of other customers and employees fleeing for the exits, he took everyone who remained hostage. One employee, a cashier named Julie, was taken as a human shield.
Police quickly established a cordon around the supermarket and began evacuations. The French Interior Minister was soon on the scene. Lakdim, a Moroccan-born French citizen, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and threatened to blow up the supermarket if two conditions were not met. He demanded that the French state stop bombing Syria and that police release Salah Abdeslam, the last living suspect of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. A few hours later, police stormed the supermarket, killing Lakdim and freeing the remaining hostages. It was the first terrorist attack in France this year.
Lakdim fits the profile of many recent Western jihadis. Having left Morocco as a small boy, he knew the land of his birth but poorly. Nor was he well-assimilated in France. A small-time drug dealer, he was briefly imprisoned. It thus came as no surprise that the community he found on Salafi online message boards provided him with a sense of meaning and identity that he had not found elsewhere. Several people in his circle of friends and family had already been radicalized. They all found a pan-Islamic identity centered around a reestablished Caliphate more appealing than French national identity.
In one key respect this attack was different from other recent ones on French soil. Unlike previous attacks, the news coverage was dominated not by the attack’s perpetrator, but by a Lieutenant Colonel in the police who died during the attack. That policeman, Arnaud Beltrame, was proclaimed a hero from one end of the political spectrum to the other and his image was plastered across the covers of every French publication of note. In homages given to him, a common note recurred: the word “hero” has become debased. Beltrame, it was said, was the real thing. He merits a place in the pantheon of true heroes—heroes as they used to be, heroes as they ought to be.
What exactly had Beltrame done to deserve such praise?
Not only had he died in the line of duty, he also offered to personally take the place of Julie, the cashier, as Lakdim’s human shield. Perhaps eager to make up for his earlier failed attempt at the police barracks, Lakdim readily accepted the exchange. As they changed places, Beltrame left his phone on a nearby table while on a call to colleagues. They were able to follow as Beltrame tried to negotiate with Lakdim inside the supermarket. Some three hours later, Beltrame called out “Assaut! Assaut!” (“Attack! Attack!”). Shots were fired. Police stormed the supermarket, killing Lakdim. Beltrame, who had tried to disarm him, was in critical condition after being shot and stabbed. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died during the night. Before Beltrame passed away, he was given his last rites by Father Jean-Baptiste, a priest at a nearby abbey who was to preside at his religious wedding in June. (By French law, the civil wedding ceremony, which Beltrame had already observed, must precede the religious ceremony.)