“I knew as soon as it happened that they would blame Muslims, say terrorists are behind it, we are used to that now; we expect nothing else from the authorities here,” declared Rachid, standing at a street corner with a group of young men. “They humiliate us and then they are surprised when there is violence.”
There were nods and murmurs of agreement among his friends gathered in a circle. Young Frenchmen, Muslims, who see the French state as an enemy, feel alienated from the rest of French society and see nothing but a bleak future of strife ahead.
The half-dozen in the group, aged between 18 and 23, were speaking in the Abbatoir district, not far from where Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a 19-tonne truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 84 people, 10 of them children.
But surely nothing can justify mass murder? “We are not saying that, what he did was very bad. But the police, the media, everyone is saying he did it because he was a Muslim,” said Rachid throwing his arms up in the air. “No, he did not even go to a mosque, he did it because of whatever problem he had, it wasn’t because he was a Muslim.”
Yusuf, one of younger members of the group turned to the others. “Did you know that he rehearsed the attack for two days before it happened? I heard that on the news, it shows how professional he was.” Was there a hint of admiration in his voice? Rachid interjected quickly. “This just shows that he was methodical. Bad people can be methodical, it does not prove he was a terrorist or a member of Daesh (Isis).”
Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old former chauffeur and delivery driver, had rented the refrigerated truck, paying the required deposit, on 11 July. On the following two days, CCTV footage shows that he drove up and down Promenade des Anglais, where he went on to carry out his lethal attack, mowing down families and firing a handgun.
Police have found a four-word text sent from his mobile: “I have the material”. This was followed, according to some accounts, by another one saying: “Bring more weapons; bringing in five.” A man and a woman have been arrested. Bouhlel’s estranged wife, Khalfallah, the mother of his three children has, however, been released after being questioned by police for two days.
The young men shrugged about the texts. “They could mean anything, maybe he was showing off, pretending to be something he was not,” muttered one. An older member of the group, Marouen, wanted to point out “ How are we supposed to know? Look at the problem here, it is lack of money, lack of jobs, no hope for young people, that’s the reason why they are so fed up, so angry. Leave religion aside for a minute, unless the government starts doing something about this, the problems will continue.”
Abbatoir is run down but not markedly poverty-stricken. But unlike the wretched banlieues around Paris, they are in close proximity to the chic and wealth of the Riviera. Landmarks close by the Promenade des Anglais, like the iconic Hotel Negresco with its pink dome, Opéra de Nice and the Musée Matisse are but a few tram stops away.
In the banlieus of Nice one does not see the affluent and often skimpily dressed tourists, but women wearing hijab and men gathered together. There are mosques considered to be mainstream, but also “ Islam du caves”, underground mosques in garages where strangers, it was made clear to me, were not welcome.
Boubekir Bakri, an imam in north Nice, began to worry about the spread of Islamist extremism six years ago. In December 2014 he organised meetings in his mosque between government officials and Muslim leaders in an attempt to form a common response. Three weeks later came the killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
Mr Bakri now talks of extremism creating an “open wound” for Muslims. Unemployment reaching 40 per cent has “ lowered the immunity” of the community, allowing “microbes” of violent jihad to spread. The imam and other Muslim leaders have organised blood donations for hospitals in Nice. “We have to organise and speak out more, the world thinks a criminal like this, a murderer, represents Islam. He does not,” he said.
Only two of the group of six young men in Abbatoir had jobs. They all complained of having little to occupy them in this urban landscape. One man who had taken advantage of this drift was Omar Diaby, of Senegalese descent, a petty criminal like Lahouaiej Bouhlel. He opened a snack bar and ran a football club, attracting men between 16 and 25 years old. He then began distributing video games and, along with these, jihadist propaganda.
Two years ago Diaby went off to fight in Syria against the regime for the Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Others have followed from Nice, including a family of 11, which included several children and an infant.
How did the young men feel about French Muslims waging jihad in Syria? "Some people get angry and they go. They have gone to fight Assad but they have been bombed by the Americans and the Russians, who knows what is going on there. You cannot believe anything anyone says,” was the view of Rachid.
None of this group had any plans to go and fight abroad, however. But neither did they have any intention of serving the French state. Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, has appealed for young volunteers to join the security service reserves, saying: “I want to call on the French patriots, who wish to do so, to join this operational reserve.”
The young men jeered at the idea. “Do you know how the police and security people behave after there there is an attack like the one the other night? They come like an army of occupation, they start being heavy, questioning everyone,” complained Marouanne.
Later, he caught up with me a little way from the others. He said: "Look, we know that Daesh try to recruit in this city, in this region. We want them to keep away from the young people. But they are recruiting among the criminals, those who already have secret lives, that is why they will succeed from time to time.”
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