French attacker was part of an extremist's circle

VENISSIEUX (France) - The man who the authorities say decapitated his boss before setting off an explosion at a US-owned chemical plant near Lyon first came to the attention of the French intelligence services at least nine years ago, after he became part of the circle of a radical Islamist.

This information has emerged even as it was reported yesterday that the suspect, Yassin Salhi, 35, had confessed to the grisly crime.

He told detectives that he killed Mr Herve Cornara, 54, in a parking area before arriving at the plant in Saint Quentin-Fallavier, 30km south of Lyon, Reuters reported, citing sources close to the investigation.

The married father of three was also reported to have sent a gruesome selfie photo of himself and the severed head to a WhatsApp number in Canada.

The Canadian authorities are working with the French police to help find the recipient of the selfie, reports said.

Salhi, who was caught during the attack last Friday, and extremist Frederic Jean Salvi both spent time in the small town of Pontarlier, near the Swiss border.

By 2008, it seems, Salvi had left France but surfaced in connection with plans to carry out a terrorist attack in Indonesia in 2010. He has since slipped through a police dragnet and disappeared, with an Interpol arrest warrant out for him, according to news reports.

While the depth of the two men's association remains unclear, it appears to have contributed to Salhi's radicalisation and was enough for the French security services to put him in 2006 on a list of potential security threats.

By 2008, however, the security services appear to have dropped Salhi from their active watch list, again raising questions about the ability of the security services to monitor a proliferating number of potential threats.

Salhi, whose father was Algerian and mother is Moroccan, grew up in Pontarlier, while Salvi seems to have arrived there after 2001, when he was released from prison in the nearby town of Besancon. The two men are almost the same age.

Neighbours described Salhi as a soft-spoken, reserved person, as did the family of Mr Cornara, Salhi's victim.

Interviewed by French television channel TF1, Mr Kevin Cornara, the son of Mr Cornara, said: "He was so nice, always smiling, very friendly, very polite... I did not see anything coming."

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'French attacker was part of an extremist's circle'. Print Edition | Subscribe