An abandoned wooden table stands on the sidewalk outside the center of the coastal town of Sfax in southern Tunisia. Empty plastic bottles are tossed next to it. A blue oil barrel rests on a rock.
The metal roof provides some shade from the strong November sun.
There are no people here and this has been the case for several weeks now. For many Tunisians, this place is associated with shame.
The 21-year-old terrorist Ibrahim Aoussaoui worked at this petrol station.
NRK has spoken with the father and friend of Ibrahim Aoussaoui in Tunisia. It is the friend who has taken the picture of the kiosk where Aoussaoui worked and it is he and his father who tell about his last days before he was shot and badly injured by French police.
On October 29, three innocent people are killed with a knife in the Notre-Dame church in the city of Nice in the south of France. A 60-year-old woman had her head cut off while the terrorist shouted “Allah Akbar” – “God is great”. Aoussaoui is accused of having done so.
The church attack is one of several attacks that have hit Europe in recent times.
In Tunisia, they are struggling to get rid of the rise of radical Islamists.
Only a few years ago, the country was seen as a model for peaceful democratic change.
In 2015, even four Tunisian organizations received the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, Ibrahim Aoussaoui was only 11 years old. The father says that he just left primary school and started working at a motorcycle workshop.
A continent under attack
Nice, October 29 this year. It’s Wednesday night, the clock is approaching 22.
Aoussaoui has just arrived in the coastal city after a long journey from Italy. He knows no one here, so he decides to spend the night on the church steps this cool October evening, NRK is informed by his father.
At this point, no one knows that Ibrahim Aoussaoui will carry out a terrorist attack shortly.
So far this year, Europe has been hit by ten attacks. Six other terrorist attacks have been averted by the security police. All have been carried out by extreme Islamists.
On October 17, a teacher is beheaded outside Paris after showing Muhammad caricatures to his students. Again, the drawings of the Prophet trigger anger in parts of the Muslim world.
Terrorism preparedness in Europe is now at its highest level. In Norway, PST has tightened security after several terrorist incidents.
– The latest attacks in France and Austria show that we are facing a threat and we must expect new attacks in the future. It would be naive to believe otherwise, says Petter Nesser, researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. He is one of Europe’s foremost experts on terrorism.
Rings from the church steps
It is getting dark in Nice and the father says that the son is calling his sister at home in Tunisia from the church steps. She is one of nine siblings, and perhaps the one closest to him
– The two have had close contact because Ibrahim is the youngest and still lived at home, his father tells NRK on the phone from Sfax in Tunisia.
The family had moved to this industrial city 20 years ago. They came from a small town in the middle of the country to the second largest city in Tunisia with a hope of a better life. The father worked in the construction industry and eventually had ten children. Ibrahim is the youngest.
The two siblings talk together as they always did that night. Ibrahim shares photos and videos from the arduous trip across the Mediterranean, and says that he will be looking for work in France the next day.
He says nothing about the knife. Nothing about what’s going to happen when the sun rises.
According to the father, no one in the family knew that the son had traveled to Europe. He had just disappeared, before they got a call from Italy.
Ibrahim Aoussaoui said he was at Lampedusa. The island many human traffickers have as a destination for their trips.
Here, many thousands of people are interned in refugee camps, before the vast majority are sent back to Africa. It is a trip that costs many thousands of kroner.
But Aoussaoui is not being sent to Africa. He manages to get further north, further away from a country that is struggling with major economic problems.
Going to Europe
In Tunisia, unemployment has skyrocketed. The Korona situation has made it even more difficult for many, if possible.
Highly educated Tunisian youths now also have problems. They see no future in their own country, so many are trying to get to Europe illegally.
So far this year, almost 10,000 Tunisians have done as Aoussaoui and arrived on the island of Lampedusa in Italy. A trip that costs between 15,000 to 20,000 Norwegian kroner.
The hope for democratic change
Nine years ago, in 2011, the situation was completely different. Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been forced to resign, in what was to be the start of the “Arab Spring”. The world looked at the country with hope and many Tunisians believed in a better future, but that did not happen.
The high unemployment and a region at war led to the great dream of democratic change becoming a nightmare.
Radical leaders, long under the control of dictator Ben Ali, were released from prison in hopes of peaceful change. Instead, these leaders became important players in recruiting for new conflicts. Thousands of Tunisians were recruited by jihadist groups to participate in Syria, Iraq and later Libya.
According to figures from the Tunisian authorities, 3,000 Tunisian men and women enlisted in the terrorist group IS. But the number is estimated to be higher. The UN estimates that around 6,000 Tunisians have enlisted in various terrorist organizations around the world. Few other countries have such a large proportion of the population involved in terrorism. According to a report from the Washington Institute, as many as 30,000 have been stopped before they managed to travel to Iraq or Syria.
– Those who recruit are professional, patient and they manage to find the weaknesses of those who are recruited. If someone needs to get married, they help them. If someone is struggling with money then they help with it. From this point, the radicalization process begins, explains human rights activist Moez Ali, who has been following radical groups in Tunisia for several years.
He has also been to Syria on several occasions and met with Tunisian jihadists.
– People in Tunisia are now at a crossroads. They have to decide. Either they are Muslims before they are Tunisians or Tunisians before they are Muslims. This identity crisis is affecting many young people in Tunisia, says Ali.
Terrorist researcher Petter Nesser has been following jihadist groups for a long time. He says that Tunisian jihadists have a long tradition that stretches all the way back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The jihadists also have a good network in Europe, and he believes our democratic societies give the terrorists leeway.
– In a society with strong legal protection, we will experience limits to how harsh countermeasures can be taken against the most extreme. This way, there will always be room for extremists in Europe, says Nesser.
Like many children in Tunisia, Aoussaoui dropped out of sixth grade. The father says that he had several different jobs, including in a workshop. After a few years, he started selling fuel that had been smuggled from, among other places, neighboring Libya. An illegal business that has provided employment to thousands of Tunisians.
It should not have been the first time Ibrahim Aoussaoui tried to get to Europe, but he had failed. September 20 was different. He managed to get to Lampedusa, and from the small island in the Mediterranean he sends pictures to his friend Ahmed.
The 29-year-old was a close friend of Aoussaoui and the only one who knew about his travel plans to Europe.
– Ibrahim told me four days earlier that he was going to Italy. He wanted to do something about his own future. France was not the target. The most important thing was just to get out of Tunisia. He called me and my family the day before the terrorist attack. Everything seemed normal.
Daylight begins to dawn on the church steps in Nice. Aoussaoui’s journey has been long and complicated. Surveillance photos show him as he enters the train station near the church. There he changes shoes and turns over his jacket. Then he goes back.
At 08.30 the church opens. Half an hour later, the police receive a report of an attack. TV pictures show police officers moving into the church where Aoussaoui was. Another photo shows Aoussaoui shot and handcuffed.
We send the picture to my friend Ahmed. He confirms that this is his friend.
– I was shocked when I heard about the attack. I did not believe he had done it and I do not believe it now either. Ibrahim was in the wrong place at the wrong time, says Ahmed on the phone from Tunisia.
Aoussaoui’s father also does not believe that his son had anything to do with the terrorist attack.
– We did not know immediately what had happened, but two days later we were called in for questioning by the local police. They told us that our son is accused of killing three people in France. It was a shock, because my son does not do such things.
– You do not think your son did?
– No, we do not think so. For there is no evidence to suggest that he was a peaceful person.
– What do you want to say to the French authorities?
– We need video evidence linking our son to the terrorist attack.
French police are quite clear that they believe they have arrested the right person, and there are video images of Aoussaoui where he is arrested with a knife in his hand outside the church.
Aoussaoui was shot himself after the knife attack, but the police have not yet questioned him. Aoussaoui is still in hospital with critical injuries.
Investigating terrorist connection
Police in France are investigating a possible link between the terrorist attack in Nice and the teacher murder in Paris. They have found a picture of the man who was behind the teacher murder on Aoussaoui’s phone.
According to the French investigation, it may appear that Aoussaoui acted alone. That they see no connection to the network or influence directed at him.
There is still much that is uncertain about Aoussaoui’s story, and as long as he is still in a coma, the police may not get the final answers.
– Usually, the investigation concludes that those who have carried out such attacks have had contact with organized environments and / or been influenced by these environments, says Petter Nesser.
If it turns out that your son was behind, would you apologize to the bereaved?
– If he has done that, then I mean sorry, the father says to NRK.
Investigations so far have shown that Aoussaoui has had a picture of the man who was behind the teacher murder in Paris. In addition, French police have found several IS images on the phone Aoussaoui, as well as an audio recording in which he calls France a country of infidels.
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