Terror attack or just plain terrifying?

Another bad day for France. Yesterday the words 'Terror' and 'Paris' occupied the headlines once more. And the all too familiar, ‘radicalised Muslim known to intelligence agencies’, was rolled out as a stock phrase once again.

But was this really a terror attack, or just plain terrifying?

Ziyed Ben Belgacem was a 39-year-old French national, born in Paris. He was shot dead at Paris Orly airport yesterday morning. His family heritage is irrelevant, though every newspaper I've read wants to tell me that he is of North African origin. He had grappled with an air force patrol officer and seized her gun. One of her colleagues then shot Belgacem three times as he made off with the officer's weapon.

The air force patrol was at the airport under counter-terrorism measures, introduced after the 2015 Paris attacks, where Islamists killed 130 people.  

Belgacem was carrying a Koran, a container of petrol, some matches, a backpack, and a gun of his own when he arrived at the airport. Apparently he also shouted “I’m here to die by Allah. In any case there will be deaths.” before he was shot dead.

If we were playing terror bingo, as many like to do these days, you’d have been shouting 'House!' within the first headline, if not then at some point in my second paragraph - especially the part where we find out he’s of North African origin.

Immigrant family - check

Muslim - check

Had a gun - check

Said something in relation to Allah - check

Radicalised - check

France - check

That's a full-house terror attack?

I don’t mean to sound flippant, but when we only look at the obvious; when we think ‘it’s just another terror attack in France’, or when Trump starts tweeting about it to support his travel ban or wall idea - we learn few lessons about the causes of these events.

Belgacem lived on a council estate with his family in Paris. He is best described as a career criminal, having spent fifteen of his thirty-nine years in prison for, among other offences - armed robbery, drug dealing, theft and receiving stolen goods. He had forty-four convictions to his name.


The incident at the airport is best described as a culmination of events that took place yesterday. Belgacem was first stopped in a routine identity check by police in a northern suburb of Paris. During the check, for reasons known only to him, he pulled out a pellet gun and shot one of the officers in the face. Thankfully the officer's injuries are not life-threatening.

Belgacem then fled in his car as officers opened fire on it, putting at least one bullet hole in it as he made good his escape. The car, which was registered to Belgacem, was found abandoned fifteen miles away.

After abandoning his car, Belgacem then went into a café, where he threatened the customers and staff, but didn’t do anything. He then hijacked a woman’s car at gunpoint nearby, and drove to the airport, about 10 miles away, where it was later found parked.

At some point before he went to the airport he sent his brother a text message saying: “I’ve done something stupid. I’ve fired at police.” - the family immediately went to the police station. We know what happened at the airport.

Some newspapers are saying that Belgacem was on a terror watch list because he had recently been radicalised by Islamists in prison during one of his previous sentences served for drugs or robbery. Other media reports are saying he was just on a criminal watchlist. What we do know is that he was out on licence from prison.  

A man, who’s spent many years in jail and is out on licence, is stopped by police, on a routine matter.

A man out on licence carrying a pellet gun, (for whatever reason), and stopped by police -  is going back to prison.

A man out on licence carrying a pellet gun who shoots a police officer in the face - is going back to prison for a very long time.

A man of North African origin, a radicalised Muslim, who might have extremist contacts and literature at his home, in France, who shoots a police officer in the face with a gun - is going to prison for the rest of his life.

Let’s put what happened yesterday into context.

It was an awful series of events for all involved.

This is a man who wanted to be killed, rather than go back to prison for a moment of stupidity during a routine check, because for whatever reason, he was somewhere doing something he shouldn't be, holding a pellet gun.

That’s not how history will see this, not how his Wiki entry will read, and not how Trump will tweet about it.

It was a tragedy that he decided to act as he did.

Terrifying, but not a terror attack.

David Videcette is a former counter-terror detective with the Metropolitan Police and the author of 'The Theseus Paradox', the thriller based on true events. 

For the chance to win a signed copy of his new thriller, 'The Detriment', click here.