Muslim leaders in Nice, France said Friday they are both heartsick and furious over the deadly truck attack on the city seafront that killed at least 84 people on Bastille Day. Several told The Daily Beast said it is time for them to take “an even more aggressive stand” against terrorism done in the name of Islam.
A 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant named Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel has been identified by police as the attacker, and on Saturday, ISIS claimed credit for inspiring the massacre. French authorities continued to investigate whether Bouhlel had radical ties over the weekend.
“We are living through a theater of the absurd and a theater of horror,” Bekri Boubekeur, head of Nice’s largest Muslim organization said. “Enough is enough. We have to act. The man who committed this carnage is not one of us. He is not a religious man. He is a common criminal.”
Karim Taimiyyah, a 22-year-old Algeria-French activist who is both a fundamentalist Muslim and a vocal opponent of ISIS, said that the suspect is well known in the tight-knit community known as a "Nice Nord" on the outskirts of the city.
“He lives 10 minutes from me,” Taimiyyah said. “He is not religious at all. He had a problem with his wife. They are in the middle of a divorce. We thought it was DAESH (ISIS) too until his name was released. I’ve spoken to three other people who know him too. I can’t emphasize enough that he was not a religious guy. There is just no proof yet that this was really a terrorist attack.”
Taimiyyah said "dozens" of police showed up in his neighborhood, which is about four miles inland from where the attack took place, within minutes of the reports of the deadly truck careening down the Promenade des Anglais.
“The police started questioning us right away and controlling us as if we were to blame for the attack,” Taimiyyah said. “But that's business as usual. We’re used to it.”
Boubekeur and his fellow Muslim leaders have organized a blood drive for the victims of the massacre that will take place Saturday in hospitals all over Nice.
“We have to organize and speak out more,” Boubekeur said, choking up as he spoke. “The world thinks a criminal like this, a murderer, represents Islam. He does not.”
Boubekeur is part of a loosely organized group of Muslim leaders that stretches from Nice to Marseille, the heavily Muslim city where many believed an attack of this scope would occur before it occurred in Nice.
The Cote d’Azur’s Muslim leaders—imams, rectors and mosque administrators—represent a significant portion of the region that the average tourist or expat rarely sees but which is growing in power and influence.
Some of them are allied with what is called the “French French” power structure, which on the Cote d’Azur radiates out from the headquarters of the right-wing president of the PACA region, Christian Estrosi. Estrosi, for example, fought for years to prevent a big new mosque from opening up in Nice because he said it was funded with Saudi money, but it finally opened up last month.
Others, like Moustapha Dali, 69, the scholarly, well-spoken rector of the central mosque in Cannes, 18 miles east of Nice, is often at war with local city officials and said he was unfairly accused of radicalizing the notorious Cannes-Torcy terrorist cell at his mosque. The mosque’s imam was rousted out of bed by French police and told he could not return to Dali’s mosque but the imam fought the charges and was vindicated.
“We are being targeted because it’s convenient for some of France to do so,” Dali told said. “It is at the point where you really cannot believe half of what you read. There are so many players in this game.”
Less than three tram stops from the iconic Hotel Negresco and the bustling cafes and pastel-colored apartments in the postcard-perfect Old Town where everyone from Matisse to Maupassant and Berlioz lived, is a parallel universe the tourist never sees. Here the streets are filled with women wearing headscarves or the niqab pushing strollers and the men gather in the so-called “Islam du caves” – makeshift underground mosques in garages.
Neighborhoods like the Ariane or La Trinité have a reputation for trouble but until Thursday night, the only proven terrorist to come out of the neighborhood was Omar Diaby, the so-called superjihadiste also known as Omar Omsen, the prescient PR mastermind and Senegalese native 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. Omsen was reported to have been killed last year.
But Diaby, who was well-known to Nice police as a petty criminal, turned out to have faked his own death and revealed that he was still alive in June. The men who run the snack shop in Nice that Diaby used to own are as scornful about Diaby’s alleged religious fervor as they are about the speculation in the international media today about the killer truck driver massacring people in the name of Islam.
“We know everyone in this community,” said Mohamed, who did not want to give his last name. “We know who ISIS tries to recruit. They don’t come to the mosques where people know and practice true Islam. They recruit the Muslim drug dealers on the corner.”
A detective at a Nice police station in the middle of one of the city’s biggest North African neighborhoods told The Daily Beast that it was “way too soon” to know what the suspect’s motives were for the attack.
“We’re buried under with all sorts of conflicting information right now,” he said. “We have a number of (undercover cops) embedded in the Muslim neighborhoods here. We are in the process of working with several of them. Nobody knows anything yet for sure.”
Maryam, whose parents left Iran when she was 8 and moved to Nice, is now a communications executive in Washington, D.C. and feels despair when she watches American television and then hears from her many friends still living in Nice.
“America is all about making everything black and white and France is all about the nuances and there are so many variables to this situation,” Ayromlou said.
“Americans don’t understand how segregated Muslims are in France. They often live and work in separate areas. That attitude is what Americans don’t understand. All of what we’re seeing in the media is like a cancer on Islam.”