Nice church attack suspect's family in Tunisia struggles to connect extremism with man they knew
By CLAIRE PARKER | Special to The Washington Post. | Published: October 31, 2020
THYNA, Tunisia —Brahim Aouissaoui dialed home on Wednesday evening as he had every night since arriving in Italy more than a month before. He had just crossed the border to France, he told his mother. It was dark out and he had no place to stay.
"He called me and said, 'Mom, I'm here, wish me luck.' I said, 'God be with you,'" Brahim's mother, Gamra Aouissaoui, told The Washington Post in the courtyard of her home Friday in Thyna, a town on the Mediterranean about 160 miles south of Tunis.
Brahim, 21, told her he would sleep in a stairwell in Nice that night and search for housemates and a job in the morning.
Instead, French authorities say, he changed his clothes in the city's train station early Thursday before entering the nearby Basilica of Notre-Dame de L'Assomption. There, he allegedly used a seven-inch knife to slash a 60-year-old woman's throat, stab to death a 55-year-old man, and mortally wound a 44-year-old woman who died after fleeing to a restaurant across the street.
When police arrived at the scene, the suspect approached them allegedly shouting "Allahu akbar" or "God is greatest" in Arabic before police shot him. He was taken to a hospital where he underwent an operation and where he remains in critical condition.
French police also arrested two men, ages 47 and 35, believed to have been in contact with Aouissaoui, French authorities said on Friday.
The attack came less than two weeks after the beheading of a teacher in a Paris suburb who showed his class caricatures of the prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on free speech. French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the cartoons as symbols of freedom of expression, while Muslims across the world have called for boycotts of French goods and protested what many see as unacceptable blasphemy.
The bloodshed in the Nice church - which Macron called "an Islamist terror attack" - triggered probes in France and Tunisia. On Friday, counterterrorism authorities in Tunisia began investigating an online claim of responsibility by a man calling himself Walid Saidi, representing the previously unknown "Al-Mahdi" group, Tunisian media reported.
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In Thyna, locals reacted with disbelief that a neighborhood kid universally described as "normal"- with no signs of extremist predilections - could be accused of committing such a heinous crime.
In the Aouissaoui's half-finished cement house, his anguished mother's wails pierced through the walls.
"Our son is not a Salafist, we are not Salafists," she cried, referring to followers of an ultra conservative branch of Islam.
The family learned of the attack when officers escorted them to the police station on Thursday and showed them a photo of medics treating Brahim's gunshot wounds. Both parents said they recognized their son.
One of at least 10 children, Brahim was born in a village near Kairouan, in the country's north. The family moved shortly after to a working-class neighborhood in Thyna, just south of the coastal city of Sfax, said Mohamed Aouissaoui, Brahim's father.
Neighbors describe the family as poor but well-respected. Brahim's father works as a guard and tends the family's two sheep; his mother stays at home.
Brahim dropped out of school around age 13. He repaired motorbikes and worked other jobs, his mother said, but was frustrated that he could only earn 300 dinars ($108) per month. Brahim began selling oil smuggled from Libya about a year and a half ago, according to a cousin - a gig that he managed to keep even when Tunisia locked down due to the pandemic in March.
About two years ago, relatives said, he decided to clean up his act. He began praying every day, at home or at the small mosque around the corner, and he told his family he had stopped drinking.
"He was never out of the house after 8 p.m., he prayed the Isha [the night prayer], he ate dinner and then he went to sleep," Gamra Aouissaoui said. "He never brought friends to the house. Nobody has ever complained about his behavior."
But friends and neighbors said Brahim had continued to enjoy a drink or a joint in recent years, and often passed the evenings hanging out with friends in Café Kimou on the busy road to Gabès. Sitting in that cafe with their neighborhood crew on Friday, Houssem Bolabi, 24, described his childhood friend as a popular guy who liked to play cards and video games on his phone.
When they heard about the attack on TV, he added, "all of the people who knew him were shocked." None of Aouissaoui's friends had heard of the so-called "Al-Mahdi" group.
Mohsen Dali, a spokesperson for the Tunisian anti-terrorism prosecutor's office, said Friday that Aouissaoui had been arrested for a knife crime in 2016, according to Reuters. Dali told the Associated Press that Aouissaoui was not on Tunisia's terrorism watch list. French and Italian authorities said he was unknown to them as well.
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In mid-September, Aouissaoui set off with 16 other Tunisians for the Italian island of Lampedusa on a small boat powered by contraband Libyan fuel he had supplied for the journey, neighbor Mohamed Ali Salemi said.
Aouissaoui's sudden departure came as a surprise to his family. But the attempts to reach Europe are familiar to all. Tunisia's economic woes have only deepened in the decade since its 2011 revolution, and rising cost of living and high unemployment continue to drive Tunisians across the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. Dali told the Associated Press that Aouissaoui had previously tried to make it to Europe but that attempt was thwarted.
"All of the young people here dream of a villa, a car, a job," said Mohamed Amri, 48, seated in Café Kimou on Friday. "The young people here, they suffer from poverty and unemployment."
Nearly 10,000 Tunisians crossed the sea to Italy this year through the end of September, according to UNHCR statistics - the highest number since 2011.
Once Aouissaoui arrived in Lampedusa on Sept. 20, he spent several weeks on a quarantine boat. Since he had not been flagged by Tunisian counterterrorism authorities, Italian officials released him on Oct. 9 with a written order to leave the territory, Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said Friday.
Aouissaoui's parents say he then worked briefly on Italian olive farms before crossing into France. In his nightly phone calls home, he didn't mention meeting anyone with extreme views and he did not bring up Macron or the Muhammad cartoons, they said.
A young man from Thyna who traveled separately to Italy last month, and was later deported, said he shared a room with Aouissaoui on the quarantine boat off the Italian coast. The man said Tunis counterterrorism forces had interviewed him and confiscated his phone Friday morning since he and Aouissaoui had taken selfies together aboard the ship.
The man, who did not give his name because he feared more visits by the police, described his roommate's mental state as stable during the quarantine period and said there was nothing unusual about his behavior. The Post could not independently verify his story.
Since 2011, Tunisia has struggled to curb violent extremism. The North African country was the largest exporter of foreign fighters to militant groups in Syria and Iraq and terrorist attacks roiled Tunisia and virtually wiped out its tourism industry in 2015.
Tunisians have been involved in at least six ISIS-affiliated attacks in France since 2014, according to a list published by researcher Aaron Zelin, who authored a book on Tunisian jihadis. Those include a truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people in 2016.
Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi met with government officials Saturday to discuss the ramifications of the attack, which he condemned as "cowardly and brutal," according to a government statement. Mechichi pledged full support to French investigators.
Brahim's family said they continue to believe Brahim did not commit the attack and that police in Nice must have apprehended him by mistake.
"He didn't have friends who are extremist," said Mohamed Aouissaoui. "Us, we are not extremist. Yes, we pray every day, but we are not extremist."