Nice attacker missing from Tunisia's list of known terrorism suspects

Family and friends of Aouissaoui reacted with shock to the news

Kmar (R), mother of Nice assailant Brahim Aouissaoui, who killed three people and wounded several in the French city of Nice, cries at her home on October 29, 2020 in the Tunisian city of Sfax after being questioned by the anti-terrorism police. The knife attacker killed three people, cutting the throat of at least one woman, inside a church in Nice on the French Riviera. / AFP / HOUSSEM ZOUARI
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With his reportedly frenzied knife attack at the Notre-Dame Basilica in the centre of Nice on Thursday, Brahim Aouissaoui placed Tunisia at the centre of a row that has divided France and much of the Muslim world.

Until then, the birthplace of the 21-year-old illegal migrant appeared to have escaped much of the acrimony that erupted between various Muslim countries and Emmanuel Macron after the French President’s comments on the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty.

In Thina, near the industrial port city of Sfax in Tunisia, the family and friends of Aouissaoui reacted with shock to the news of his alleged involvement in the stabbings that left three people dead.

Neighbours spoke of a polite young man who was friends with many within the modest neighbourhood, with no links to any militant organisation, a fact borne out by his absence from Tunisia's own list of known terrorism suspects.

His distraught mother, Gamra, recalled a quiet son, who had grown close to religion over the past two years, repairing motorcycles and selling petrol before returning directly home each night.

A picture of Brahim al-Aouissaoui, who is suspected by French police and Tunisian security officials of carrying out Thursday's attack in Nice, is seen in this undated photo provided by his family on October 30, 2020. al-Aouissaoui family/Handout via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

According to the family's account, Aouissaoui had spoken to them via video call from opposite the church where he said he would rest overnight before looking for work. However, according to the French prosecutor, the suspect had been filmed at the train station at 8.30am on the morning of the attack, before proceeding to the basilica with a Quran, two phones and three knives.

“My brother is a friendly person and never showed extremism,” Brahim Aouissaoui’s older brother Yassin told reporters. “He respected all other people and accepted their differences even since he was a child.”

Born into a large family of eight sisters and three brothers, Aouissaoui lived in a relatively simple house down a rutted road some miles from the sprawling port city.

At 21 and unmarried, he would have been indistinguishable from the countless young men who jockey with families on the smuggling boats that ferry their illicit human cargo from Tunisia to Lampedusa. This year alone, nearly 10,000 Tunisians have arrived on Italy's shores seeking a new life. Passage is easy enough to find: 4,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,430) will generally cover the journey.

According to those The National spoke to earlier this year, the methods of transport vary. In Zarzis, near the country's border with Libya, for example, fishermen pack their small boats with local migrants before undertaking the crossing. From the Kerkennah islands, near Aouissaoui's home in Thina, more established smuggling networks are said to use larger boats to transport significantly more migrants close to the Italian shore, before shunting them into smaller vessels for the final stretch.

How Aouissaoui made his journey is unknown. However, prosecutors in Sicily have confirmed that he arrived in Lampedusa on September 20. As with all arrivals, he subsequently spent 14 days in quarantine before being transferred on October 9 to Bari on the mainland.

There, the authority's capacity to return migrants already stretched to breaking point, Aouissaoui was issued with a slip of paper ordering him to leave Italy within seven days. Instead, he absconded to France and, ultimately, to Nice.
"We want the truth about how my son carried out this terrorist attack. I want to see what the surveillance cameras showed," his mother told AP.

Col Mokhtar Ben Nasr, formerly the head of Tunisia's National Counter-terrorism Commission, told The National that many terrorists used illegal immigration as a means of conducting their attacks. "Since 2011, they have been travelling along with other immigrants. So, yes, illegal immigration is an important factor in this issue," he said through a translator, before expressing concern over how migration was regarded within Europe, which chooses to focus on security matters at the expense of social and economic issues. He expressed concern over what he sees as Europe's tendency to focus on the security matters arising from migration at the expense of the wider social and economic issues.

For Colonel Ben Nasr, now a member of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Security Studies, what is lacking is co-operation. "Security measures on the borders are not enough,” he said. “Also, banning the free movement of people between countries cannot be a solution. You can't keep the exchange of merchandise and ban people from moving freely between countries. That's not liberalism.”

Perhaps closer to the frontline in the fight against Tunisia's radicalism is Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, the President of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (Ratta) which liaises between the families of fighters and the authorities.

"Radicalisation in Tunisia has never declined," said Mr Ben Rejeb, who led the organisation through the dramatic exodus of Tunisians to the Caliphate and beyond.

He pointed to two factors that continue to drive radicalisation within Tunisia: the number of fighters returning from overseas and the absence of any substantive counter-radicalisation programme to address the situation within the country's jails, as well as the attraction extremism held for young people, such as Brahim Aouissaoui.

However, this was not an issue only for Tunisia, Mr Ben Rejeb said. "The terrorist ideology is like Covid-19,” he said. “It affects everyone all over the country and the world."