A 33-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker was arrested on Saturday morning in Romans-sur-Isère, in Drôme, in south-eastern France.
Two other men, both from Sudan, one of whom shared an apartment with the suspect, were also interrogated in police custody.
The National Counterterrorism Brigade, PNAT, announced on Saturday evening that it had opened an investigation into “homicides and attempted murders linked to a terrorist organization” and “criminal terrorist plot”.
The suspect, who arrived in France in 2017 and who obtained refugee status and obtained a 10-year residence permit, moved to Romans-sur-Isère in January after two years in Moras-en-Valloire, in the north, where he worked in leather goods.
Aurélien Ferlay, the mayor of Moras-en-Valloire, said on French television that the man had undergone professional training in leather goods supported by social services and the charity Secours Catholique.
Ferlay said he was “both stunned and horrified by the attack”, which he said left everyone “completely mystified”.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, made us think that he would do this terrible act. He went to work on his bike, he was polite with my staff and I and he has not been a problem in our community, “said Ferlay.
The local newspaper, Dauphiné Libéré, said that the man worked in a factory in Romans-sur-Isère, a town of 33,000, and was unknown to French and European police and security services.
A statement from the anti-terrorist prosecutor said that a search of the suspect’s apartment had revealed “handwritten documents with religious overtones”. He said the author, who has not yet identified the documents, “particularly complains that he lives in a country of sinners.”
The suspect entered a tobacco shop Saturday morning and allegedly assaulted the owner and injured the merchant’s wife while trying to help her husband. He then went to a nearby butcher where witnesses said he jumped over the counter, grabbed another knife and stabbed a customer before running out and attacking passers-by on the street.
A 44-year-old computer engineer was killed while in the butcher shop. The second injured, named Julien Vinson, 55, owner of La Charrette, a café-theater, was stabbed in the street while trying to protect his 12-year-old son.
A third man, 63, was in serious condition at the hospital and four others – two men, 65 and 59, and two women, 48 and 49 – were also injured.
French President Emmanuel Macron described the attack as “a heinous act that has hurt a country already hard hit in recent weeks.”
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who went to Romans-sur-Isère after the attack, spoke of the suspect’s “terrorist history”.
He said: “I welcome the full engagement of the security forces who quickly apprehended the suspect and are currently investigating.”