‘He showed no signs of being radicalised’: Family of Nice terror suspect say he gave no clues about violent attack

Bel Trew
·4-min read
Ibrahim’s mother Qamra holds up a picture of her son (Ezer Mnasri / The Independent)
Ibrahim’s mother Qamra holds up a picture of her son (Ezer Mnasri / The Independent)

The last thing Ibrahim Issaoui, 21, said to his mother was that he was going to sleep rough on a piece of cardboard outside Nice’s Notre Dame basilica and after resting, find some work to keep himself afloat.

Around the same time, he sent a voice message to a close friend back in Tunisia, saying he had bought a red jacket. The unemployed 21-year-old, who had illegally entered Europe in September aboard a migrant boat to Tunisia, sent a photo proudly showing off his new purchase.

The family said no one back in Issaoui’s impoverished village in Sfax, 270km southeast of Tunis, had a clue the young man, who was better known for his partying, was preparing a killing spree within the church he had just photographed.

But at around 8.30am on 29 October, Issaoui reportedly beheaded a 60-year-old woman, stabbed a 55-year-old sexton and killed another woman in her 40s in what the French President Emmanuel Macro has described as a “Islamist terrorist attack”.

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi  said the suspect had "repeated endlessly 'Allahu Akbar' (God is greatest)" and compared it to the recent murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded close to his school outside Paris earlier this month.

“He only got to France the day before that attack, he arrived in Nice by train from Rome,” she added, explaining that he had no steady job in Tunisia but had scraped together a living selling fuel clandestinely.

“He was in contact with me daily, he said he went to Europe for work."

Issaoui’s rampage was the third such brutal attack in less than two months that French authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists. This includes the beheading of Mr Paty who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class after the images were re-published by satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Qamra said the family doubted Issaoui, who left school aged just 13, was even aware that Charlie Hebdo existed. He had apparently never mentioned the controversial caricatures or the killing of Mr Paty.

On Friday, tens of thousands of Muslims in countries including Pakistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, poured out of prayer services to join anti-France rallies.  

There are concerns that extremist groups including the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda are exploiting the uproar by using to social media to incite supporters to commit violent attacks in France and against French interests, in retaliation.

The day before the Nice stabbings, prominent Isis media operative Turjuman al-Asawirti urged followers in a gruesome six-minute video to cut off heads in revenge.

Ezer Mnasri/ The Independent
Ezer Mnasri/ The Independent

However, there is no proof it is linked to Issaoui’s rampage.

His family says he does not have a history of violence.

As a teenager he had been briefly detained in 2016 for getting involved in a brawl but was released quickly because he was only 17 years old and so a minor. His friends and neighbours said he had a drinking and drugs problem for a few years, but he gave it up recently.

“After he gave up alcohol he began to pray, but in a moderate fashion like the rest of the family,” one neighbour in the village told The Independent, declining to be named.

“His friends are young people who drink alcohol and who are not religiously active let alone radical.”

Ibrahim Issaoui, who is originally from Kairouan in central Tunisia, left his family in Sfax mid September without revealing where he was going.  

Three people were killed in a knife attack at the Notre-Dame Basilica in NiceGetty Images
Three people were killed in a knife attack at the Notre-Dame Basilica in NiceGetty Images

They only found out later he had taken a boat across the Mediterranean with over a dozen other young people from the surrounding area.

His elder brother Yassine, 35, told The Independent Issaoui did not have enough money to pay the smugglers, but was given a seat in the boat after procuring the fuel needed for the trip, since he was already clandestinely selling it anyway.

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said he reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, a busy landing spot for migrants crossing in boats from North Africa, on 20 September.

According to Italian newspaper Corriere Della Stella, his boat was held for two weeks as part of Coronavirus quarantine regulations. When he eventually disembarked in Bari, a port city in southern Italy on October 8, officials carried out a background check, but, found no criminal record or that he was on any international watch list. 

Ibrahim Issaoui’s mother Qamra in SfaxEzer Mnasri / The Independent
Ibrahim Issaoui’s mother Qamra in SfaxEzer Mnasri / The Independent

The Italian paper said he was still issued a deportation order since he had no legal right to enter Europe. But for some reason he was freed - an action which is now the subject of investigation.

Yassine said Issaoui said he spent a few weeks working illegally in an olive grove in Italy to make money but was told he would more likely get a stable job in France and so decided to travel to Nice.

“Ibrahim was sociable, calm, and fairly well integrated. He was very well adapted, he showed no signs of being radicalised,” Yassine said.

His mother, still in tears, added.

“It was supposed to be a chance for him, to have a better future.”

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