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Nice massacre bewilders Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s relatives

Nice massacre

Outside the family home, a two-story, whitewashed compound in the Tunisian town of M’saken, Mouthir Bouhlel was at a loss to understand how his son could have taken such a wrong turn.

As a boy, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been troubled and often violent. His father remembered him as “always alone, always depressed”. But he insisted the teenager had shown no jihadi tendencies, only self-destructive ones. “He would become angry and he shouted,” said Bouhlel. “He would break anything he saw in front of him.”

Nothing, however, in his stormy adolescence could have prepared his family for what Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did on Thursday night. Their shock was profound when news broke early Friday that his identity card had been found in the truck he used to kill 84 men, women and children on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

Indeed, that shock verged on denial. Repeated phone calls to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel from relatives in M’saken went unanswered. “Why would my brother do something like this?” his brother Jabeur told Reuters. “We’ve been calling him since yesterday evening but he’s not responding.”

Nothing in Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s upbringing suggested a militant path, with neighbors in Tunisia and France saying he preferred women and drinking to religion, rarely visiting a mosque. The family lived a regular life in what is a prosperous part of Tunisia.

M’saken, which was once a small town, has in recent years been swallowed up into the expanding Sousse coastal conurbation, its wealth fuelled by miles of hotels along glittering beaches. The town has handsome cafes and wide boulevards, its prosperity underlined by a shiny Renault dealership on the main street.

“This is not a terrorist town, people here make money, we are not radical,” said Mejad, a local government official. “People like to drink, they like to socialize.”

The family had no inclination that their son had any radical tendencies. It is still unclear to what extent, if any, that he had been involved in any wider terrorist organization. Although the news agency affiliated with Islamic State claimed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as a fighter on Saturday, he was not known to French or Tunisian intelligence services. Prosecutors said on Friday they had not found any links to Isis or other groups.

The picture that emerges of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel from M’saken is of a handsome, healthy boy who suffered a mental breakdown at 17, which his family said lasted two years. His father showed the BBC a doctor’s report from 2004, which appeared to show that his son had taken prescription medication for mental illness.

By 2005, said his family, his breakdown was behind him and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel left for France. The former colonial power is a popular destination for Tunisians, with more than 40,000 living in Nice. Within the city lives a tight community from M’saken.

Tributes to victims that were laid near the scene of the attack in Nice.
Tributes to victims near the scene of the attack in Nice.

Dotted among the busy traffic on M’saken’s wide central boulevard are French-registered cars bearing the number six licence plate of Alpes Maritimes, the Nice département, driven by townsfolk who work in the French city and spend their summers in Tunisia.

In Nice, the family hoped, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel would connect with a diaspora of local families who could support him. At first, the move seemed to work. He got a job as a delivery driver and married a French-Tunisian woman. They had three children, aged five, three and 18 months.

But his family say he made infrequent trips home, the last, for his sister’s wedding, in 2012. In France his violent temperament resurfaced.

Two years ago, the couple separated. She and the three children stayed in their apartment in the Abattoirs district of Nice, with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel moving to a cramped, one-room apartment elsewhere in the city. Neighbours described him as solitary, even threatening, and earlier this year his violent personality got him in trouble with police.

A fight with another driver earned him a six-month suspended sentence in March, according to the French justice minister, Jean-Jacques Urvoas. “There was an altercation between him and another driver and he hurled a wooden pallet at the man,” Urvoas said on Friday.

French media reported that by then Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had already been sacked by his company after falling asleep at the wheel of a delivery van in January.

One question for security forces will be whether he made contact with any of the radical cells, which in recent years have made Nice their home.

Radical recruiters have set up networks in the Riviera city, most prominently followers of Omar Omsen, also known as Oumar Diaby, who is high on France’s most-wanted list. After producing online propaganda videos, Omsen moved to Syria in 2013.

Back in M’saken, many worry about the damage that the Nice attack will do to the Tunisia’s already tarnished reputation. After last summer’s beach massacre near Sousse, which left 38 tourists dead, the country has been connected to a second atrocity in just over 12 months. “People when they think of Tunisia, they will think of terrorism, but that is not the truth,” said Mejad.

 




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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field