PARIS — The man opens his door a crack and whispers: “I’m scared. We are all scared.”
He was far from alone. In the hours before France’s terrorism crisis was brought to a blood-drenched end Friday, anxiety had reached a fever pitch in double stand-offs between terrorists and police.
Fugitives on the loose, killers on the run, hostage-takers in their bolt-holes, whether random or targeted: a kosher market in an eastern suburb of the capital, a printing warehouse 40 kilometres north of the city.
But for the past six months, this man — as he now realizes — had been living in the apartment right next door to a malevolent jihadist apparently biding his time, waiting for the moment to strike.
“What can I say?” the man told the Toronto Star on Friday morning. “He was nice, pleasant, helpful.”
He: Terrorist Cherif Kouachi, shot dead with his brother Said late Friday afternoon, felled in a hail of police bullets.
The quiet, pleasant, harmless-seeming fellow who lived here, on the fourth floor, with his brother, a brother-in-law and a veiled woman married to one of the men.
“I never saw her face,” said the man, who wouldn’t provide his name. “She never spoke to anyone.”
Down in the lobby, a mailbox notes the name of another related individual in an apartment on a lower floor: Hamyd Kouachi. It is unclear if this is the same person as Hamyd Mourad, the teenager who turned himself into police after seeing his name mentioned on social media as the getaway driver after the massacre — executions — at Charlie Hebdo.
It is not particularly unusual that a radicalized Islamist would be residing in this somewhat derelict social housing warren of apartment blocks and townhouses in the northern suburb of Gennevilliers. The complex is home to about 40,000 residents, a significant chunk of them Muslims, mostly from North Africa. As in other high-density concentrations of the working poor, culturally and economically ostracized from broader society, grievances fester, reactionary ideas take hold.
The Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said, as their neighbour has now discovered, embraced those beliefs as fervently as they once fancied themselves burgeoning rap artists or potential soccer stars, such fanciful notions. In real life, Cherif had worked has a pizza deliveryman.
But it doesn’t require talent to pursue terrorism as a career; merely ardency and righteous conviction. And, of course, the influential grooming of an ideological mentor, which the brothers reportedly received from a charismatic Paris imam, Farid Benyettou — key recruiting member of a jihadist cadre known as the Buttes Chaumont terror cell — and later, after Cherif spent 18 months in jail on terrorism-related offences, as disciplines of a firebrand, Djamel Beghal, who was associated with the notorious Finsbury Park mosque in North London and spent a decade behind bars for planning terrorist attacks.
None of these biographical details were known to the brothers’ neighbours in Gennevilliers, although some were disturbed by their tendency to read the Koran aloud and loudly.
“I can’t believe my neighbour did this terrible thing,” said the man speaking to a reporter from behind a chain lock. “He lived here, among us. That’s why we’re afraid, all of us, because these people were our neighbours.”
But perhaps he doesn’t speak for the rest, or even the majority of the residents who occupy the complex’s 600 units.
Cherif Kouachi is said to have been radicalized through contacts he made not around here but years earlier at the Addawa mosque in the Stalingrad neighbourhood of Paris. That mosque has since been torn down. While its long-deferred replacement is still in the construction planning stages, those who worshipped there have taken their prayers temporarily to a Quonset-hut structure nearby
There, during Friday prayers — as in mosques throughout Paris — the horrific crimes committed at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were harshly condemned as violating every principle of Islam. Yet individual Muslims also expressed fear and alarm about the backlash directed at them, with several mosques and Muslim-oriented businesses attacked across France in recent days.
“Yesterday I was attacked by someone in a store,” said Halima Bouzroud, 49. “A man said to me, ‘I may not be perfect but I would never bomb a magazine office because I was offended by cartoons.’ He said this to me only because I wear a hijab. I wanted to hit him.
“Does it say bomber on my forehead? Why should these crimes be laid against me?”
The woman, who was born in Morocco but is a French citizen, complained that all Muslims in France will be held somehow accountable for the wretched acts of a handful.
“Now the terrorism has come to France. But it isn’t our imams who are radicalizing our young men. It’s the Internet, it’s Islamic radio that the boys listen to. They’re young, they don’t have jobs, no future, and so they’re angry. Teenagers sleeping on the street. Their heads are like buckets filled with all this garbage. They eat the brains of our young people.
“Muslims were also killed by these stupid brothers in the shootings. I have sons and I have to tell them, please don’t listen to this. It is not the way of Islam.”
Attached to the temporary Addawa mosque is a Muslim charitable agency that also operates a food bank. Ahmed Mdouari is employed by the agency.
“We are all opposed to this violence, all Muslims,” he said. “It’s a disaster, a dishonour to our religion. But the radicals are everywhere. They prey on our children. They play nice at first and then drawn them in.”
Mdouari, 61, was born in Morocco but raised in France. His father was in the French army during the Second World War.
“My father fought for France. I am a Muslim and a Frenchman.
“These radicals have hurt my country and disgraced my religion.”