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German authorities seek motive for knife attack at store that left three women dead

Flowers and candles form a sidewalk memorial outside a business.
Flowers and candles were laid at the scene in Wuerzburg, Germany, where three people were killed and six others injured in a knife attack Friday.
(Michael Probst / Associated Press)

A suspect in a knife attack in southern Germany that left three women dead was being held on suspicion of murder Saturday while authorities puzzled over a possible motive, examining his mental health and seeking to determine whether he was radicalized.

The attack started late Friday afternoon when the suspect allegedly walked into a store in Wuerzburg, went to the household goods department and asked a saleswoman where the knives were, regional police chief Gerhard Kallert said. He then grabbed a knife and fatally stabbed three women in the store before attacking more people outside. Six people, most of them women, were seriously injured, and one of them remained in critical condition on Saturday.

Videos posted on social media showed people surrounding the attacker and trying to hold him at bay with chairs and sticks. The 24-year-old Somali man was shot in the leg by police and arrested.

On Saturday, he was brought before a judge, who ordered him held in jail pending a possible indictment on suspicion of three counts of murder, six of attempted murder and dangerous bodily harm, and another of bodily harm.

The man, whose name was not released, arrived in Germany in May 2015 and was granted “subsidiary protection,” a status that falls short of full asylum, authorities said. He had been in Wuerzburg since 2019, and was living in a homeless shelter.

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Officials said he didn’t have a criminal record, but there were two incidents earlier this year that resulted in him being sent briefly to a psychiatric hospital. In January, he got into an argument with residents and staff at the shelter and brandished a kitchen knife, prosecutor Wolfgang Gruendler said.

He didn’t attack or hurt anyone then, but an investigation was opened and he was temporarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital. That investigation is still ongoing and a psychiatric evaluation is still outstanding.

Earlier this month, there was an incident in which the man allegedly hitched a ride with someone and then refused to get out of the car. That again resulted in his admission to a psychiatric unit, but he was released after a day, prosecutors said. They said there had been no pattern of increasing problems.

Authorities also were looking at the possibility of the man having been radicalized as an Islamic extremist. Kallert said a store detective and police officers reported hearing the suspect say “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” during Friday’s attack and its aftermath. Bavaria’s top security official, Joachim Herrmann, said that “further cautious indications” in that direction emerged from his questioning, without elaborating. Material with “hate messages” also was found but has yet to be evaluated, police said.

As to whether the man was mentally ill or radicalized, “we don’t know either one thing or the other for sure at the moment, but I just want to note that they don’t rule each other out,” Herrmann said. Authorities were examining a mobile phone and other evidence.

The case was handed over to prosecutors in Munich, the state capital, but not to federal prosecutors, who deal with terror cases in Germany.

A fellow resident of the shelter who said he was among about a dozen people who tried to stop the suspect stabbing anyone else until police arrived on Friday described the man as being “always alone, not talking to the other people.” He added that “he was strange all the time.”

“Thank God we people managed to scare him a little bit, distract him, he got tired, and thank God it didn’t turn out even worse,” the man, whose name was given only as Kadir A., told RTL television.

Herrmann described using a shot to the leg to stop an assailant as a “textbook” move. Bavaria’s rules on police use of force allow firearms to be used only to make perpetrators unable to attack or flee, and a shot that is likely to kill is permitted only when others’ lives are threatened.

The rules call for officers to aim at the legs where possible.


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