NICE, France — They all know him at the snack bar on the outskirts of Nice that Omar Diaby established between prison stints and before he left here for Syria in 2013 to become France’s number one recruiter of jihadists.
Word got out last August that Diaby, the so-called superjihadiste also known as Omar Omsen, the prescient PR mastermind who began disseminating pro-jihad and anti-Western-imperialism videos in 2012, well before the rise of the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, had been killed. But last week it turned out that Diaby faked his own death—and took to French television to discuss it.
When The Daily Beast reached him by Skype on Saturday, Diaby told us he lied about being dead so he could go to Turkey on the down-low for a needed medical operation.
“I had to go away for a few months for an operation and it would have made me too much of a target,” Diaby said from a location he told us was in Syria near the Turkish border.
Diaby has not been implicated in either of the major terror attacks in France last year. But in his France 2 interview he praised those who murdered the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
“Those who insulted the prophet were executed,” he said, referring to Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s holiest figure. “I wish I’d been chosen to do that,” he added.
But were reports of Diaby’s death more complicated than Diaby wanted to admit? Could it be that the once-famed jihadist, known for fronting Michael-Bay-style recruitment videos, has lost a little heat and needed to jack up his global profile with a faux death and a sexy resurrection?
Opinions were flying thick and fast Saturday at the snack bar where most of the customers knew Diaby back in the day and many had been pressured to join him after he left for Syria.
Among the clientele were Salafists (hard-line Muslims who follow fundamental precepts but who denounce the violence of ISIS and al Qaeda), everyday Muslims, and teenage friends of youngsters who Diaby recruited. While downing hamburgers and french fries, they argued over Diaby’s current status in Syria.
Some wondered if Diaby is cooperating with French authorities in order to cut a deal to return to Nice, where his lively snack bar was and is a popular neighborhood hangout just a 15-minute tram ride from the beautiful beaches of the Cote d’Azur.
Other sources in Nice say Diaby has broken with the al Nusra Front, affiliated with al Qaeda in Syria. “He’s been marginalized,” one old friend of Diaby told The Daily Beast. “He’s like a guy without a state. He’s not with al Nusra anymore and he’s definitely not with Daesh [ISIS]. He needs to up his media profile and regain some of his power.”
“No,” Diaby, 41, told The Daily Beast. “I had to have a medical procedure and I needed time off without any eyes on me. That’s all. Nothing more to it,” he said.
But he did admit to being a bit homesick.
“I really miss socca,” Diaby told The Daily Beast, referring to the chickpea crepe that is a Niçois specialty. “I wish I could eat some right now.”
According to the investigation that aired last week on France 2 and was filmed by a Syrian cameraman, Diaby has returned to Syria with a clean bill and reigns as the head of a small group of Frenchmen—his “potes” or buddies—all from this same neighborhood in Nice. They now live a very different life, ruled by Sharia in a collection of white tents in the Syrian countryside.
The documentary appeared to be arranged and monitored by Diaby. Many of his men, most of whom are in their early twenties, have married women who wear the full niqab, covering their faces and bodies completely. Babies and toddlers were seen being carried around the campgrounds by these women in black.
Oddly, the French men were pictured enjoying such pastimes as jumping joyfully into a big lake, eating ice cream and riding in open-air jeeps through the countryside. There was little evidence of hard-core combat against the Syrian troops deployed by President Bashar al-Assad, one of the alleged reasons Diaby left for Syria.
“It was difficult to see exactly what their goal was when watching the documentary,” Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, told The Daily Beast. “They say they are engaging in battles in Syria but we didn’t see any in this particular show. I think what’s clear is that Omar needs to regain his previous stature of a high-profile foreign fighter.”
France 24, the international network, reported that Diaby’s return from the alleged dead coincides with the start of a trial in Strasbourg of seven Frenchmen suspected of traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The suspects include the brother of one of the Nov. 13 Paris attackers and are all believed to have been recruited by Diaby’s former lieutenant, Murad Fares.
Bryan, 20, was recruited by Diaby three years ago and interviewed in the documentary. Handsome, brandishing a Kalashnikov, he was barely 17 when he put his belongings in a backpack and went to Nice International Airport where he caught a plane to Turkey and then traveled across the Syrian border.
Bryan, like the majority of youngsters Diaby recruited, was Christian by birth and converted to Islam after watching propaganda videos disseminated by Equipe 19HH, the rubric attached to Diaby’s videos.
“19HH” was a reference to the World Trade Center and the 19 terrorists who participated in its destruction on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bryan’s distraught mother in Nice speaks to him at times via Skype, but always with someone standing near him, she has said. She wants him to come home but Bryan doesn’t want to.
“His mother is not doing well at all, but she still hopes Bryan comes home someday,” Samia Maktouf, a well-known Parisian lawyer who has counseled Bryan’s mother, told The Daily Beast. “This man Omar is very dangerous, he has a very big influence over young people.”
Still, Bryan seems to want to stay in Syria, where he reportedly got married and has a baby.
“I can’t see returning home,” Bryan said on France 2. “I just don’t want to go back there.”
Bryan’s teenage cousin was in the snack bar Saturday playing with a basketball. “My aunt’s doing better,” he said. “But most of us really wonder if Bryan will ever come back.”
To locals in the St. Roch neighborhood here, the Senegalese-born Diaby, who spent his formative years in what Americans would call a “housing project”—this one fittingly named Bon Voyage—had a reputation among local cops and public defense lawyers as a typical “voyou.”
“He was just a kid in trouble a lot,” Richard-Dixon Pyné, his former lawyer in Nice told The Daily Beast in his offices in the center of the city on Friday. “He wasn’t a bad kid. He sat here just like you. Polite, quiet, nothing out of the ordinary except a long rap sheet.”
Those in his ’hood saw him differently.
“Omar, he was a legend here,” Ahmed said Saturday, while pouring some Algerian hot sauce on his hamburger. “Everyone, especially the little kids, looked up to him. He was a big guy, very charismatic. Everyone knew him. He had a lot of power among the people here.”
Diaby’s videos have gotten tens of thousands of views and are thought to be the chief reason why so many French left France to fight in Iraq and Syria.
But it was a surprise to many when Diaby announced on France 2 his support for far-right, anti-immigrant politician Marine Le Pen.
“If the French don’t want war, they should vote for Marine Le Pen,” Diaby said, referring to France’s involvement in anti-jihadist military operations in Syria. “This woman has asked French troops to go home because this war is none of their business. Well, she’s absolutely right.”
Omar Diaby, clearly, is a man full of surprises.