Brahim Aouissaoui was a non-practicing Muslim for the majority of the time he spent in Tunisia. He drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and sold contraband fuel.
SFAX, Tunisia — Brahim Aouissaoui, a 21-year-old man who allegedly killed three people in a knife attack in a church in Nice on France’s Côte D’Azur, has lived two lives — one in his Tunisian hometown Sfax; and another in Italy and France.
Tunisian investigators have found no evidence of Brahim's radicalisation, concluding that he had no premeditated intent to kill innocent people on European soil in a terror attack.
Currently undergoing medical treatment in a hospital in France after being shot eight times by police, Brahim lived an ordinary life in Tunisia, which was similar to other young men of his age.
The Tunisian counterterrorism division started working on Brahim's case on October 29, the same day French authorities arrested him on the charges of murdering three people in what accounts to a terror attack.
Officers from this unit interrogated Brahim's family members, relatives and close friends.
TRT World learned from Brahim's family and friends that the counterterrorism interrogators were focused on knowing whether Brahim showed any signs of behavioural change prior to his departure to Italy.
Several police officers repeatedly visited his family and friends, at times calling them to the police station for further questioning.
“I went to the police station and they (police officers) repeated the same questions and I kept telling them the same thing,” Brahim's father, Mohamed Aouissaoui, told TRT World.
“I had no answers to provide them as there was nothing to say about my son. There was no noticeable change in his behavior showing any extreme thoughts,” the 60 year old man, who works as a guard in a local marble factory, added.
A spokesman for the Tunisian judiciary told the local press this week that the police had no record that linked Brahim to any criminal activity.
Tunisian law enforcement officials have come to a common conclusion, which is more speculative than fact-based. It is that Brahim might have been radicalised in Italy as no evidence linking him to any terror group exists in Tunisia.
A contraband fuel vendor
A school dropout, Brahim was keen on making money from his teenage days and showed great interest in learning new skills with the hope of translating them into a well paying job , according to relatives and friends in Sfax.
“He started learning how to repair motorcycles in a repair shop in the neighborhood,” one of Brahim’s friends told TRT World. “He then decided to make a living selling contraband fuel.”
Like many other young men of his age in the neighbourhood, Brahim smoked marijuana, drank alcohol and partied with his friends. He had also started dating a girl a year ago.
According to Brahim's brother Nassim, a 38-year-old vendor in a local market, “Brahim wanted to support his family and that’s why he dropped out of high school and started working.”
Smuggled from Libya and Algeria, contraband fuel sold in the country’s southern regions is a widespread business activity. Although it's officially prohibited by law, Tunisian authorities prefer to turn a blind eye to it. If stopped, the authorities believe it may trigger social unrest.
Brahim was making a profitable income, equivalent to $20-25 per day, which is considered to be lucrative in light of the North African country’s ailing economy.
Brahim and his family moved to Sfax in early 2000 from the governorate of Kairouan, which is known for its high population of practicing Muslims. Brahim has nine siblings — seven sisters and two brothers.
“I don’t believe he did such a thing”
By late 2019, Brahim had suddenly quit drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. His family and friends didn't find it alarming since he had decided to start praying. Such a transformation is common among Muslims in late teens and early 20s, which doesn't mean the person has taken the path of extremism.
Brahim's social behaviour remained the same, as he continued hanging out with his friends, and going to the gym regularly. “He kept coming with us and the fact that we were drinking in front of him didn’t disturb him at all,” said Ahmed Kid, one of his close friends.
Brahim and his friends’ favourite hang out spot was a nearby beach called Zebrata.
At the local Mosque, one of the three in the neighbourhood of Badrani where he lived prior to his departure, the Muezzin, a man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque, said Brahim wasn't a regular at the mosque.
“I only saw him a few times in the Mosque as he wasn’t really a regular,” he said, preferring his name not to be mentioned. “If I had seen any suspicious, extremist-looking or alarming behavior, I would have reported him to the authorities and prevented him from entering the Mosque”.
On September 25, Brahim boarded a boat off the Zebrata beach and headed to the Italian island of Lampedusa. He did not inform any of his family members.
He paid for the passage to Italy by selling the smuggled fuel, according to the TRT World investigation. People familiar with the smuggling activity say the journey would have cost him minimum $1,270 (3500 Tunisian dinars).
In the summer of 2019, Brahim first shared the thought of leaving the country with his mother Gamra Aouissaoui, who is in her 50s. She talked him out of it and he changed his plans, she told TRT World.
“The night he departed to Italy, I called Brahim around 11pm as he was late and it wasn’t something he often does,” Gamra explains, adding “he told he is to be a bit late as he is finishing some work.”
The mother heard from her son only a few days later. “He called us (the family) to say that he arrived in Lampedusa and he has to undergo the mandatory coronavirus isolation period for two weeks.”
Following his two-week lockdown period, the young man found a job picking up olives in Italy, according to what he repeatedly told his family and friends for about two weeks.
On October 28, he took a train from Roma Termini station and headed to Nice, France.
Once there, his family said he made a video call saying he had arrived and that he was going to find a shelter for the night under a building’s staircase. The next day, which was Thursday, Brahim told his family he was keen to find other Arab speakers, and from them, seek help in finding a job and in essence, a new life.
The family confirmed Brahim only speaks Arabic with Tunisian dialect, and cannot speak any foreign language.
Brahim’s mother Gamra is exhausted by the emotional turmoil and the relentless flow of interviews with media representatives, neighbours and relatives. She doesn’t believe her son, who she portrays as a simple, loving boy, could want to hurt anyone.
She wants the French authorities to release all CCTV footage and prove her son was involved in the attack.
Brahim had tested positive for coronavirus, according to French newspaper Le Figaro’s story on November 2. First responders who treated him after being shot by municipal police on Thursday, said he is under a quarantine process, Le Figaro reported.
French investigators haven’t yet interrogated Brahim, in light of his poor health condition.