The 21-year-old Tunisian man who is accused of using a kitchen knife to kill three people in a church in Nice spoke to his family 12 hours before the attack, giving no indication he was contemplating violence.
Brahim Aouissaoui grew up among eight sisters and two brothers in a modest home on a potholed road in Thina, a working-class neighbourhood in an industrial zone close to Sfax, a major port on Tunisia’s eastern coast.
Sfax is 80 miles (130km) from the small Italian island of Lampedusa and a key point of departure for Tunisians attempting the crossing to Europe.
Aouissaoui abandoned his education while at high school and worked as a bicycle mechanic before launching a roadside business selling small quantities of petrol to motorists, family members said.
Authorities said Aouissaoui’s occasionally violent behaviour and drug use had brought him to the attention of local police.
“He drank alcohol and used drugs. I told him: ‘We don’t have enough and you, you waste money?’” Gamra Issawi, Aouissaoui’s mother, said.
She said her son responded: “If God wills it, he will direct me to the right path, that’s my business.”
Over the last two years, relatives noted a change in Aouissaoui’s behaviour. He began praying regularly, staying at home and shunning the company of former friends. But he “never showed extremism”, said Yassin, an older brother. “He respected all other people and accepted their differences even since he was a child.”
Aouissaoui had begun to think about leaving Sfax and Tunisia, and made at least one abortive attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy. He did not warn his family that he was going to try a second time. “He did not tell … and we were surprised when he told us he had reached Italy,” Yassin said.
According to prosecutors in Tunisia and Sicily, Aouissaoui disappeared on 14 September and arrived on the island of Lampedusa on 20 September on a small fishing boat with 20 other young male Tunisians.
There were favourable sea conditions that day and a total of 26 boats arrived on Lampedusa over 24 hours, each carrying between 10 and 20 people. Aouissaoui was questioned by police upon arrival who noted no indication of distress or cause for alarm, according to sources cited by la Repubblica.
Italian officials told local media Aouissaoui had never been on the Tunisian police’s watch list and was not on the radar of intelligence organisations. Tunisian officials confirmed Aouissaoui was not listed by their security services, and French investigators said he was unknown there.
Italian investigators confirmed to hlcarpenter.com that on 23 September Aouissaoui was on deck five of the Covid-19 quarantine ship Rhapsody, with 804 others. The result of his swab test was negative, and on 9 October the Rhapsody docked at the Adriatic port of Bari in Italy, where Aouissaoui was photographed and registered by the authorities. Italian prosecutors also confirmed that Aouissaoui had no papers with him at that time.
According to Italian investigators, after being questioned by the police in Bari, Aouissaoui spent more than 10 days in Sicily, presumably in Palermo. Prosecutors in Palermo and Bari have launched an investigation.
The high number of arrivals from Tunisia means repatriation procedures from Italy are often delayed. Instead, Tunisians are given a written order requiring them to leave Italy within seven days.
About 50 people a week are transferred to a guarded migrant centre before being escorted back to Tunisia by plane but the rest are released, said Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, a professor of asylum law at the University of Palermo. Aouissaoui received the order to leave Italy but his movements were not monitored. He may have travelled illegally through Ventimiglia on the French border.
He had called his family at about 8pm on Wednesday to tell them he was in France. “He said he had decided to go to France because there were better work prospects and there were too many people [seeking employment] in Italy,” his brother said.
Aouissaoui’s sister, Afef, said he had sought out Notre-Dame church in Nice when looking for a place to sleep, and told her he planned to rest in a building opposite. He had shown no sign that he was planning any kind of attack, she said, but 12 hours later allegedly entered the church and killed two women and a man with a knife.
Aouissaoui, who was carrying two phones and a Qur’an in addition to the weapon, was shot by police. He is in a critical condition and under heavy guard in hospital.
French police have arrested a 47-year-old man who was in contact with Aouissaoui on Wednesday evening, though officials said there was no evidence of any complicity.
Tunisians were involved in eight plots in France between 2014 and mid-2019, as well as four elsewhere in Europe, according to Aaron Zelin, the author of a recent book on extremism in the country.
A major attack was carried out by a Tunisian man on Bastille Day in Nice in 2016. He drove a truck into a crowd, killing 86 people.
Though the 2011 revolution brought Tunisia democracy and freedom of expression, it did not translate into an improvement in living standards or economic opportunity, and increasing numbers of young people have sought to emigrate.
In September, Italy said the number of migrants arriving over the past year in boats across the Mediterranean had risen by half.