Tunisian family of Nice church attacker refuses to believe son is guilty

·3-min read

As the French city of Nice mourns the three people murdered in a brutal knife attack on 29 October, the family of the suspected perpetrator, a 21-year-old Tunisian arrested at the scene, are still proclaiming his innocence.

“I do not believe my son did such a terrible thing," says the mother of Brahim Aouissaoui, who was shot and badly wounded by police following the attack at the Notre Dame basilica in the southern French city.

Gamra Aouissaoui told journalists: "It’s impossible, and I know my child.”

The family, who live in Tunisia's Hai Badrani neighbourhood, 5km south of the coastal city of Sfax, say they're exhausted by the news stories and social media posts that have erupted since the attack.

“We don’t really understand what’s going on and where the truth is,” Nassim Aouissaoui, the brother, told RFI.

Reports say Aouissaoui, a migrant who arrived in France via Italy a month ago, has been flown to Paris for medical treatment.

His family say they've not been given any information by authorities regarding Aouissaoui's whereabouts or health condition. Neither have they been offered psychological assistance.

No obvious radical past

It's understood that Aouissaoui showed no clear signs of having been radicalised. His thoughts on Islam remain unclear, though his friends say as he stopped drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana in late 2019, and started praying.

“That doesn’t mean he stopped hanging out with us," said one close friend, Ahmed Kid. "When we went out to have some beers, he would join us even if he didn’t drink anymore.”

A spokesperson from the North African country’s judiciary informed the press earlier this week that Brahim Aouissaoui had no record of any criminal activity. The young man wasn’t on any list of religious or terrorist suspects in Tunisia.

Disappeared Facebook account

Aouissaoui's Facebook account was deactivated on the evening of the attack, according to several friends and relatives.

“I had a permanent contact via Facebook’s Messenger app with Brahim since he arrived in Italy,” Kid says. “Late the day the attack happened, Brahim’s account was still active and he appeared to be online till 9pm, the last time I checked it.”

Family and friends say the entire content of their Messenger communication with Aouissaoui suddenly disappeared. “When I checked messages... I found out that every content he transmitted was deleted,” Kid says. “I don’t know what happened.”

Departed with no prior notice

On 25 September, Brahim Aouissaoui embarked on a boat along with ten other Tunisians headed to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

He informed no one of his decision to leave the country, according to his family.

According to several sources, the young man paid his passage by providing contraband fuel instead of the 3,500 dinars (1,100 euros) other migrants pay for the crossing.

The family heard from him few days after he arrived to Italy.

“He called us from Italy to say he has arrived to Italy is all fine and that the authorities are putting him on a medical isolation on a boat for two weeks,” the family confirms.

According to Ahmed Kid, he and Brahim kept in touch on an almost daily basis.

“After the two weeks period of medical isolation, he said that he found a job picking up olives and he did work there for over ten days,” Kid explains.

Ahmed Kid does not remember the name of the region where Brahim found the job.

Under investigation

Early last Friday evening, Brahim Aouissaoui was reportedly transferred from Nice to a hospital in Paris, where he is being treated for bullet wounds suffered in his arrest.

Parallel investigations continue in Tunisia, France and Italy.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has condemned the stabbing as “a brutal and cowardly terrorist attack”.

The country’s counter-terrorism division is still investigating the alleged existence of a terrorist group, named Ansar al-Mahdi in Tunisia, which has circulated a video claiming the attack in Nice.

Security services have announced the weekend arrest of two individuals, one of them clearly identified in the Ansar al-Mahdi video.