At a press conference held this week by the victim’s family and their lawyer, Jean-Alexandre Buchinger, new details emerged on the savage April 4 beating and killing of Sarah Halimi, 67, in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. Contrary to assertions made earlier by the police and the French press—and repeated by me, here—it appears that Halimi’s murderer did target his victim because of her Jewishness, and recited verses of the Quran both before and after he killed her. Why was this information not reported at the time?
It was 4:25 a.m. on April 4 when Kobili T., 27, an African Muslim, a drug dealer, and a drug addict, knocked at the door and entered by force into the apartment of a neighboring family. Kobili seemed so agitated and aggressive that the entire family, who came to France from Mali, locked themselves in the bedroom and the father called the cops. Through the door, they said they could hear the intruder reciting verses of the Quran.
Three policemen responded to the father’s call 13 minutes later but apparently entered the wrong building. In the meantime, Kobili T. had stepped over the balcony and climbed into Sarah Halimi’s apartment, which was situated in the neighboring building.
At 4:45, police received a second call from a neighbor describing “a man beating up his wife” behind the front window. “It is an older woman,” he said, “and she seems to suffer a lot.” Neighbors awakened by the cries were also watching. One testified that the beating looked “bestial.” Others said they heard Kobili T. crying out “Allahu akbar,” “shut your mouth,” and “you sheitan!” (devil or Satan).
Six other policemen now stood behind the Malian family’s door. Yet, afraid that they faced a terror attack, they were waiting for an elite squad to intervene. When reinforcements finally arrived around 5, it was too late: Sarah Halimi had been thrown out of her window, her face and body badly disfigured by the severe beating she had suffered.
Through the balcony again, her murderer went back to the Malian family again and resumed his praying. He was arrested there, still praying, at 5:35 and did not offer resistance. He is currently under psychiatric scrutiny.
The Halimi family is now calling for a requalification of the murder as a terrorist act with torture and with anti-Semitism as an aggravating circumstance. Yet, if the anti-Jewish impulse is indisputable, qualifying the murder as a terror act seems dubious, as everything indicates that Kobili T. acted on an impulse. In fact, Sarah Halimi’s murder looks a lot like the killing of Sébastien Selam that occurred in 2003, coincidentally in the same neighborhood, and was the very first anti-Jewish crime of a very long list of them in France.
Like Sarah Halimi, Sébastien Selam, 23, was killed on an impulse by his childhood friend and neighbor Adel Amastaïbou—and, like Kobili T., Amastaïbou emerged from the parking lot where he had assassinated Selam proclaiming that his act was inspired by Islam (in this case, what he cried out was “I’ll go to heaven, I killed my Jew”). Like Kobili T. again, he was sent to a psychiatric ward while the victim’s family was trying to have the murder qualified as a hate crime. But Amastaïbou’s lawyer had no trouble demonstrating that both his client and his mother were under heavy psychiatric treatment at the time.
The confusion around these murderous acts seems to come from the need for the families and the authorities alike to qualify the facts according to recognizable categories. A politically motivated terror attack, for instance, is one category of act. But what we’re facing here, it seems, is something much worse—a pure, naked impulse of hate of a psychotic/mystical nature that seems to travel like a virus from one killer to the next.
At the time of the Sébastien Selam murder, anti-Semitic hatred in the French suburbs had been incubating for three years. The first network of Jihadis, which was later called “the Butte-Chaumont gang,” and was dismantled by police in 2006, was being formed in the nearby A’dawa mosque (the Kouachi brothers, future killers of the Charlie Hebdo team, were among the members).
But even though Selam and Halimi’s murders and the terror networks belong to the same sphere, as it were, they are hardly identical. It is difficult to draw an equivalence between the sudden upsurge of a murderous impulse and a planned killing that came at the end of months of preparation and training.
What should be understood is how the violent anti-Semitic impulse serves as a base and a justification for subsequent terror planning. In 2014, the year preceding the major terror wave that continues to this day in France, the figures on spontaneous anti-Jewish aggressions as given by the Ministry of Interior reached 800—two a day, directed against a total population of 500,000 people.
In February of that year in Villeurbanes, a Lyon suburb, a man armed with a hammer and an iron stick charged his neighbor, a woman, and her child, while yelling “Dirty Jew, go back to your country.” The same month in Thiais, near Paris, a young man smoking a cigarette outside of the family pavilion was assaulted by two men who stole his cellphone and beat him up at the cries of: “Dirty Jew, we don’t like Jews here, this is no Israel, this is Palestine!” In June, in the city of Nice, a young woman and her mother were attacked by a complete stranger who slapped the younger one in the face at the cries of “Dirty fucking Jew, dirty French, we’re gonna blow everything up! Synagogues will blow up, you bitches!” There were dozens of these cases.
Isn’t it striking, also, that, from the Kouachi brothers to the Bataclan commando members, the killers involved in recent terror attacks voiced their hatred of Jews and “Zionists” while committing their deeds, regardless of whether their actual targets were Jewish or not?
The murder of Sarah Halimi occurred during the last days of the electoral campaign. Like in Sébastien Selam’s killing, the French press was mute.
Read more of Marc Weitzmann’s Tablet magazine reporting from France here.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.