The sounds of evening television shows, in a dozen different languages, wash over the roads leading to the Islamic centre in the Paris suburb of Courcouronnes. For the thousands of North African, South Asian and Turkish immigrants walled up in the town’s grey public-housing ghettos, their TV sets are windows into a world they abandoned in search of an earthly paradise that eluded them.
The neighbourhood was home to Ismael Oman Mostefai, the 29-year-old suicide attacker, the first to be identified by French police teams investigating the Friday attacks that killed 129 people across Paris.
Police have said that the French-born ethnic Algerian, sibling to three brothers and two sisters, jumped out of a black Volkswagen Polo with two other men, and opened fire at the Bataclan concert hall — killing 89 people, and leaving many more critically injured.
His journey into the Islamic State, from a suburban youth who played music with a local band and never went to the mosque, illustrates the deep social tensions behind Friday’s massacre in Paris.
“These kids believe you can become a Muslim by searching Google, instead of your soul. They want to change the world, instead of learning to change themselves,” said Khalil Merroun, rector of Courcouronnes’ Islamic centre, Europe’s largest.
Long known to police, from eight convictions for everything from street brawls to suspected drug-dealing, investigators identified Mostafei by the prints on a severed finger found at the Bataclan hall — the jihadist’s only remnants, after he detonated his suicide belt.
‘He was just like us’
Mohammed Dem, who studied with Mostafei and played with him in a local rock band, remembers him as an unexceptional teenager. “He was just like the rest of us,” said Dem.
“I’d have known him if he ever came to the mosque. His parents, who were conservative but not particular religious, would come sometimes, but I don’t recall the son,” said Merroun.
The son of an Algerian father and a Portuguese mother, who converted to Islam when she married, Mostefai lost contact with his family soon after they moved to Chartres, when he was in his early 20s. The brothers — one a businessman who runs a shisha bar, others in middle-class jobs — said they severed their ties because of his criminal behaviour.
In 2010, though, the young man began appearing in French intelligence records, as he began spending time with a group of neo-conservative Muslims, led by a Salafist proselytiser based in Belgium.
However, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said on Saturday that “he never had been involved in a chain of record or criminal association in relation with a terrorist group”.
The major of Chartres, Jean-Pierre Gorges, told local media that Mostefai “made no noise”. “He had no known professional activity, and lived quietly in a social housing district of La Madeleine,” said Gorges.
Flooded with cases of jihadists who have travelled to the Islamic State, police paid no attention when Mostefai travelled to Turkey in the winter of 2013-2014. He is now thought to have spent the winter in training with jihadists across the border in Syria where, French intelligence sources say, the kernel of the Friday attacks plot was likely born.
“It’s a crazy thing, it’s madness,” Mostefai’s brother told Agencé France Press was he was being detained for questioning on Saturday. “Yesterday, I was in Paris, and I saw how this shit went down.”
‘They will use this against us’
Bangladeshi immigrant Shoaib Ahmed, who moved to France three decades ago, had similar sentiments. “I’m very scared what has happened will be used against all of us Muslims,” he said. “There are some people here who have long waited for something like this to give them a reason.”
The battle between French assimilation and immigrant identity has been sharp in Courcouronnes.
In 2011, the town’s socialist mayor Guy Briantais even banned social-housing apartments from installing satellite dishes. It was a move meant to prevent injuries to people on the street but one that local communities saw as intended to force them to sever their cultural links with their homelands.
For the most part, French Muslims are deeply embedded in the country’s social fabric. Less than a third of Muslim women, for example, say they have ever worn a headscarf.
There is, however, a significant problem of disenfranchisement.
Lower levels of educational attainment, economic deprivation and social alienation, has generated high levels of crime: 60% of France’s prisoners, for example, have been estimated to be of “Muslim cultural origin”.
‘Youth playing at being gangsters’
Economic resentment has often sparked violence — though the violence has been mainly gang-related, not religious. In 2014, riots led to injuries to 16 police officers as youth people destroyed school properties in Amiens and Tolouse.
“I have been asking for the means to alleviate the neighbourhood’s problems,” said Gilles Demailly, Amiens’ mayor. “You have gangs of youth playing at being gangsters who have turned the area into a no-go zone. You can no longer order a pizza or get a doctor to come home.”
For a minority, however, estimated in surveys at some 15% of Muslims — overwhelmingly those below the age of 20 — resentment has translated into support for the Islamic State and its ideals.
In a leaked 2013 French intelligence report, authorities reported Islamising trends in some public schools — headscarves in playgrounds, clandestine prayers in gyms and absenteeism during religious holidays.
Last year, an entire French family of 11 moved to Islamic State-ruled Syria. In an interview, a French jihadist identifying himself only as “Abu Shaheed” told the magazine Paris Match there were at least 500 French citizens serving with the Islamic State alone.
In mid-February, 2013, video emerged of French jihadists near Aleppo laughing and cheering as they towed bodies of executed opponents behind a pick-up truck. “In the past, we towed jet skies, motrocycles and quad bikes. Now we tow apostates and unbelievers,” said the driver of the truck.
Perhaps, the case that shook French public debate most deeply was the cast of Sahra Mehault — the daughter, like Mostefai, of mixed-race parents, Severinne Mehault and Kamal Mehenni. The mother was an atheist, the father a non-practicing Muslim.
Sahra secretly left France after being recruited online last year, and later announced that she had married “Farid,” an Islamic State jihadist.
Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist who has worked with French Islamists, said that while jihadists were earlier recruited mainly from working-class youth angry over poverty and discrimination, now “three-quarters of them come from atheist families” often with high levels of education.