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Who Is Mehdi Nemmouche, and Why Did He Want To Kill Jews?

In the first of a five-part series on growing anti-Semitism in France, an intimate look at the alleged Brussels Jewish museum shooter

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Belgian Vice-Prime Minister and Interior Minister Joelle Milquet, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, and Brussels Jewish Museum president, Philippe Blondin, take part in a ceremony in honor of the victims of a shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, on June 4, 2014. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: KRISTOF VAN ACCOM/AFP/Getty Images.)
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This is the first of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

***

Nine a.m., rue Carnot, one of the quietest, most opulent-looking streets of Versailles, and the terror choreography’s already in full swing: strident sirens, red flashlights, flashbulbs, and yelling of the press. Two black cars with tinted bulletproof windows and circled by a squad of motorcycle cops enter the paved rectangular courtyard of a venerable edifice. The Sun King Louis the XIV had it built in 1672 for his wife Thérèse of Austria; she housed her horses here. After her death, the queen’s stables went to Adelaïde de Savoie, Duchess of Bourgogne, then to Marie Leszczynska, Queen of France, and finally to Marie Antoinette. Then the revolutionaries used it as a jail, butchering 14 prisoners there during the 1792 September massacres. Now it houses the Court of Appeal, whose task today is to debate the fate of Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged author of the Brussels Jewish museum killings.

Faces hooded, M-14s in hand, .38 caliber pistols on the side, the mute black silhouettes of the RAID team—the French equivalent of the SWAT—check every one of us as we pass the freestone walls and, across the courtyard, take the wooden staircase leading to the first floor where the court hearing takes place.

France's Toxic Hate

Nemmouche, handcuffed and with three RAID men to guard him, enters the court’s glass cage at 9:43. He’s 29, midsize, with black hair. He wears a colorless pair of jeans and a shapeless pullover, and he bears no sign of the brutal determination so obvious on the picture that the authorities gave to the press—an image that was probably taken at the police station of Roubaix, his city of birth, near the Belgian border, back in 2005 or so, when he was just another juvenile delinquent. No signs of fear, embarrassment, or shame. No trace, either, of the scary militia aura emanating from the museum surveillance videos that showed a black-and-white, blurred, muscular man, cap on his head, sunglasses on his eyes, and—just like Muhammed Merah, the Toulouse killer, had two years ago—a GoPro camera attached to his chest so he could film his murders.

Inconsequential, almost transparent, as he voices his civil status, answering in an assured monotone voice the three female judges facing him, Nemmouche could be any of the unnoticed kids that wander in my neighborhood in Paris all day long, from some café-bar to one of the many temporary employment agencies and back to the bar for another espresso, another beer, another petty larceny, just to kill boredom and pass the time.

Last May 24, a Saturday, at 3:27 p.m., according to the accusatory file, a man appeared at the doorstep of the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Out of his bag he pulled a Magnum .357 and fired. The bullets hit Emanuel and Miriam Riva, a couple of Israeli tourists in their mid-fifties who had just entered the place. Each was struck in the back of the skull, and they died on the spot. (Later on, a witness showing up a few minutes after the killing would post on his Facebook page a picture of Miriam’ s body lying in her blood, her hand still carrying the museum’s pamphlet program; what her children, ages 15 and 16, living in Israel, thought of the photograph is not known.) Letting go of the Magnum, the shooter then took from his bag a Kalashnikov, aimed it at a 65-year-old woman by the name of Dominique Sabrier, and shot her, also in the head.

A retired art publisher of Polish descent, Sabrier had left France for Brussels only two months before. Her reason for moving, ironically enough, was, according to her friends, the anti-Semitic atmosphere that now permeates France. The Toulouse killing had scared her, as had the hate demonstration in Paris the previous winter—when, for the first time since World War II, anti-Jewish slogans were chanted in public in the French capital. In Brussels, a city Sabrier knew, she hoped to live a quiet retirement. She had registered for law classes at the Free University of the town and was volunteering as a tourist guide at the museum.

Alexander Strens, 25, found the time to seek refuge under his reception desk—before the killer found him and shot him, once again in the head. Strens, hired at the museum’s communication department the previous year, was the only victim still alive after the shooting. Sent to the Saint-Pierre hospital of Brussels, he was declared brain dead there the next day. He died on June 6, raising the murder total to four. Although Strens’ mother is Jewish, his father is a Muslim Berber from Morocco and, in accordance with the wishes of both families, he was buried in the Muslim cemetery of Taza.

Then, with Strens—and with no more reason than it had when it started, the massacre ends. The surveillance video shows the shooter running away, bag in hand. He disappears.

***

Brussels is the capital of Europe. The day after the shooting, an election was held for a new European parliament. Xenophobic nationalist parties across the continent were predicted to win a lot of seats even before the killing, and as soon as the news broke the already perceptible tension among the continental political class was imbued with a new sense of frailty and paranoia: Was the scheduling of the massacre just a coincidence? Or was a message being sent—and by whom? Europe was under siege, no doubt, and humiliated, too.

The mayor and various members of the Belgium government showed up at the scene. King Philippe declared himself “outraged,” while the U.N. Security Council condemned “the terrorist attack” and its “probable anti-Semitic motivations,” and from Jerusalem, adding to the humiliation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the rise of anti-Jewish feeling on the continent. The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and E.U. Foreign Secretary Catherine Ashton, denounced an “intolerable attack against the values of Europe,” while European Parliament President Martin Shulz, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and French President François Hollande all made the trip to the museum three days after the killing to pay homage to the victims.

In the meantime, though, on Sunday May 25, the people of Europe spoke, sending to the E.U. Assembly some of their worst representatives, like those of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, who had won some 26 percent of the Greek electorate, and Marine Le Pen’s National Front, who was now considered, with its 25 percent of the valid votes, the leading political party in France.

So, who was responsible for this disaster—the destabilization, the humiliation, and the shame? The Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir, in its coverage of the shooting, may have hinted at a one generally held answer when it used the word “settlements” to describe the real estate held by the Jewish community in town, of which the museum was a part—as if Europe was no more natural or suitable a home for Jews than the West Bank. (Never mind that the theme of the museum exhibition at the time of the attack was the antiquity of the Jewish presence in Belgium dating back to early Christianity.)

‘He’s nice kid, Mehdi, he’s a nice kid, how could he end up doing such a thing?’

That same idea seemed to animate the deranged response of the Belgian extreme-right deputy Laurent Louis, who, earlier in May, had organized with the French comedian Dieudonné an anti-Semitic rally in Brussels. When forced to issue a statement in order to exonerate himself from any connection to what had just happened, he implied that the massacre was nothing but a conspiracy carried on against him personally by his “enemies” (namely, the Jews) to discredit his action. And maybe not surprisingly in such a context, it fell to the esteemed Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan to openly express the view that the murders at the Jewish Museum were part of some larger Jewish conspiracy: “The two Israeli tourists targeted at the museum,” he tweeted on May 27—choosing the word “targeted” despite evidence that the victims had been chosen randomly—“worked for the Israeli services.” Ramadan’s sole ground for this statement, it seems, was that the Rivas were public accountants—that is, they worked for the state in which they lived. In Ramadan’s mind, anyone working for the State of Israel, apparently, was a spy and therefore a potential legitimate target for murder. The attack, he added, was “a diversion offensive to hide the true motives and the real perpetrators” of the deed: The Israelis, in other words, were sacrificing their agents in order to gain political propaganda points. Needless to say, Ramadan’s tweet made its way through the social networks, where it became a common meme and was integrated into news reports of the shooting as an interesting theory to explore.

The arrest of the French-born Nemmouche on May 30 did nothing to stop the confusion. If anything, it even emphasized the weird discrepancy at work in the wake of the shooting, between tragedy radiating worldwide on the one hand and globalized provincialism of conspiracy theories on the other. As the police story goes, Mehdi Nemmouche was apprehended in Marseilles during the routine control of a Eurobus from Amsterdam that was known to be commonly used by petty drug traffickers on their way to Algeria. Asking for Nemmouche’s I.D., the cops spotted a gun at his side and decided to make a move. They searched his bag, found not only a cap similar to the one seen in the video but the Kalashnikov used at the museum, bullets by the dozens, and a miniature GoPro camera with a video inside showing those weapons, with Nemmouche’s voice over the images claiming responsibility for the attack. (The camera, apparently, had not been working well during the killing.) But the more disturbing finding turned out to be a simple white sheet on which Arabic words had been painstakingly drawn with a felt-tip pen. Once deciphered, the inscription revealed itself to be the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS—the most deadly terror group to have emerged out of the Syrian conflict.

Now, as questionable as some details of this official version may be—was it really a routine check, or did someone snitch?—the problem remains: How to coherently put together, on the one hand, the AK-47 and the way it was used—in cold blood, the shooter hitting his target each time and then vanishing calmly in the streets—and, on the other, Nemmouche’s adolescent look, the fact that he so amateurishly kept his weapons with him on a bus so widely used by delinquents and therefore so obviously under scrutiny?

On the social networks, that question has been used as “proof” that Nemmouche is in fact innocent and that the story he told—that he found or bought the bag—was true. But then there is the rudimentary ISIS flag, and there is the evidence, brought by the investigation, that on Dec. 31, 2012, Nemmouche left France for Brussels, London, Beyrouth, and Istanbul, on a trip to Syria where he indeed spent 11 months training with ISIS. Composed in part by ex-members of the old Saddam Hussein national guard, partly from Sufi tribes, and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the self proclaimed “caliph” of Iraqi background who until recently was as discreet with cameras as Osama Bin Laden was voluble—ISIS counts, according to official estimates, some 5,000 soldiers in Iraq and 12,000 in Syria, a surprisingly low number considering the advance of its troops on the ground. ISIS compensates for its lack of men by a communication strategy based on unabashed terror and open barbarism; its videos of mass murders posted on the Internet has had such an impact on the Iraqi regular army, four times superior in numbers, that Iraqi soldiers regularly flee from combat, leaving the roads open to the ISIS militias.

Now, to judge from the prisoner’s two aunts shyly sitting at the end of the courtroom, I’m not the only one to find preposterous any kind of connection between all this and Mehdi Nemmouche’s daily life as a petty delinquent in La Bourgogne, the proletarian neighborhood in Roubaix-Tourcoing where he was raised by his grandmother. La Bourgogne is one of those French hot “cités” where the police do not go by night and where unemployment has hit the roof. It’s also where Nemmouche’s two aunts happen to live. I spotted the two slim middle-aged women a bit earlier when Nemmouche entered the cage, briefly looked at the public, and winked at them, a sign to which they answered with a weak smile and a pale gesture of the hand. Since then, they’ve been visibly at pains to understand the point of the session, or what their nephew’s lawyer, Apolin Pepiezep, a 40-year-old African from the Ivory Coast, was talking about.

Back in the courtyard to wait for the police cars to leave at the end of the hearing, I can see there’s definitely something going on between them and Pepiezep. They’re actually arguing. “We’ve been trying to send clothes to Mehdi but you wouldn’t let us!” says one. “You forbid us to have any contact with him!” “Look,” he answers aggressively, somewhat disdainfully, “you understand what you want. But I never forbid you anything. He just doesn’t want to speak to you, that’s all!” Then he turns his back and, leaving the aunts at a loss, departs to speak to the press.

Still from surveillance-camera footage recorded inside the Jewish Museum in Brussels. (Belgian Federal Police)

Later, on the phone with me, the attorney justified his attitude by citing Nemmouche’s concern with protecting his family from any connection with his situation. Not a good point, since the whole family has been interrogated by the police in the days following the shooting—testimony that is now permanently on record. Pepiezep also put the blame on Souleifa Badaoui, Nemmouche’s previous lawyer back in Roubaix, accusing her of being a publicity hound. “She shouldn’t have brought the family to the court,” he told me. “They have no purpose whatsoever there!” Whether Pepiezep is really appointed to the court or picked up by Nemmouche is, in fact, unclear. It’s at Pepiezep’s request that the court gathered this morning, to decide whether or not Nemmouche should be tried in Brussels, as Belgium demands, or in France, under the suspicion that his rights to a fair judgment wouldn’t be guaranteed if he were extradited. Both Belgium and France being European countries, the matter should hardly be a point of argument—there’s no “extradition” inside of the European Union as the prosecutor sarcastically reminded Pepiezep. But Nemmouche and his lawyer both insist that, once delivered to Belgium, Brussels would not hesitate to transfer him to a “third country”—namely Israel. However groundless the assumption may be, of course—Jerusalem has never made any demand in that sense—it’s good material for anti-Semitic propaganda on the social networks.

When asked by the judge at the end of the hearing if he had anything to add, Nemmouche stood up to emphasize that point again—“I’ll answer your questions only when I have guaranteed my rights not be put into Israel’s hands”—I saw the two little aunts totally overwhelmed as much by the purpose as by the fierce militant mechanic voice with which Nemmouche was suddenly expressing himself. Here, at last, was a glimpse of the brutality radiating from his official pictures and from the surveillance video.

***

Three minutes’ walk outside the tribunal building, at a terrace under the shade of the nearby gardens surrounding the famous castle, I meet the aunts for coffee. In, of all places, Versailles! Its statues of ancient royal heroes, its perfume stores, its market gardeners, its homogeneous ethnicity: What could be farthest from that quiet bourgeois country-like luxury than these two women? Leïla, at 50, works in a packaging factory, and Aïcha is unemployed. Roubaix, where they were born and raised, was once the capital of the working class, the “Mecca of socialism,” was its nickname. It is now the poorest city in France—and the Mecca of French Islam.

But neither one nor the other of these women seem ostentatiously religious. In fact, they’re not even Arabic but Kabyle, Berber from Algeria. More surprisingly, they’re also Harkis. During the Algerian war of independence the word, derived from the Arabic Haraka (“movement”), described the Algerians who fought with the French against the Liberation National Front. Once the war was over, France rewarded them with disgraceful politics: The Harkis not left behind to be slaughtered were parked for decades in internment camps—in fact, the very same that had been used for Jews in the 1930s—and left there until the mid 1970s to be guarded by members of the ex-colonial administration.

Once they got out of the camps, though, and despite the daily racism and petty humiliation they had to face, the Harkis became the more silent and integrated into the Muslim population. Or should I say more resigned? They had no place to go back to—and, in the ’70s, would have been killed as traitors if they had tried to return to Algeria.

Because the family settled in France before the war, it seems Nemmouche’s aunts never knew the internment camps. Leïla is the smaller, with short hair around a round face, while Aïcha has a low jaw, a long nose, and long curly black hair. Despite their differences, they share the same lack of makeup, the same lack of color on the skin of their thin bodies, the same lack of words as they try to make sense of that overwhelming reality: Their nephew being charged with assassinations in the context of a terrorist enterprise. And they also share the same lack of any real rebellion on their pallid faces, which express nothing but the banal sufferings and misfortunes of the poor: “Do not say we’re Harkis if you write anything in France, we do not want to be shamed by our neighbors.” “He’s nice kid, Mehdi, he’s a nice kid, how could he end up doing such a thing, if it’s him?”

And as they deliver for me the long, gray, sad commonplace that is, for them, Nemmouche’s story, I can’t help wondering if it’s not against that—the excruciating boredom of such a narrative—that he first rebelled: his birth in April 1985 to a small shopkeepker in Roubaix who never recognized him (and who still lives there today) and a somewhat depressive mother—Leïla and Aïcha’s sister, whose name is never pronounced and who seems to have been “a bar girl,” as Souleifa Badaoui, the lawyer, would later tell me. (And it is true you could meet a lot of girls like that, back in the early 1980s in France, rebellious kids fleeing from conservative immigrant families, hating themselves for doing so, searching for a place to land and be accepted and finding nothing but bars, and the men in the bars.) The Vasseurs, a foster family, sheltered Nemmouche in a little village near Roubaix when he was 3, at the social services agency request, who judged his mother unfit for the task of motherhood. “We always wanted to take him, we always insisted,” says Aïcha, “but her mother would never let us.” Paid by the state for doing the job, the Vasseurs raised Nemmouche between three and five other children of which he was the sole “Maghrébin.” And his grandmother at La Bourgogne finally succeeded in taking him in 2002, when he was 17. He never kept contact afterward with the Vasseurs. His first conviction came two years later, in 2004, two months of jail for violence; then in 2006 for driving without a license; then in 2007 again for rebellion. “Inform me if I must do some approach to meet you for I am now incarcerated,” he writes to Souleifa Badaoui after a series of sentencings that same year, this time for robberies and hold-ups, for which he served a total of five years. He was released from prison on Dec. 4, 2012. Three weeks later, on the 31st, he left for Syria.

***

There is little doubt that Nemmouche radicalized himself in prison. Karim Mokhtari, who was sentenced to 10 years in the mid-1990s after he tried to rob a drug trafficker and accidentally killed him with a shotgun, reveals in his book Redemption how easy it is to be approached by Islamists there. “In prison,” he told me, “there are two things you catch as soon as you get there. One is how lonely you are, and the other is how lonely you don’t want to be. So you look in the courtyard and you ask yourself, to which group do I belong? There are the junkies, there are the dealers, there are the rapists, and so forth. And there are the religious. Cleaner than the rest, they also seem to suffer less, they take care of each other. I watched them for a week, then the improvised Imam came to me to ask if I were a Muslim and I said no, not yet, and he introduced me to someone freshly converted—a European—who taught me the first rudiments of Arabic, the first prayers and rituals. And it went on from there.”

After the conversion rate started to turn the group into a force of some sort, the administration decided out of precaution to dismantle the religious group: The imam was transferred. He came to Mokhtari’s cell, as Mokhtari told me: “ ‘Listen’ he said, ‘I’m being transferred and I must leave. But you, your mission as a Muslim is to kill. Kill miscreants anywhere you find them. You need to keep in touch for that even when you’re out so do it. And if you need military training, we have places for that too.’ ”

“That’s when I realized what I was going into,” Mokhtari said. He was the son of a violent mixed marriage, and his French mother got divorced and remarried to a racist Frenchman who lived on welfare and off robbery. Still, as I listen to Nemmouche’s aunts, I wonder: What’s really relevant in that story, what explains anything? Mokhtari started to get regularly beaten by the man, who also woke him up at 4.a.m. on Saturday nights to take him along with him on his robberies of villas and apartments while Karim kept watch. But despite an incomparably more violent background than Nemmouche endured, Karim Mokhtari never turned to terrorism. Today 36, he manages different associations and groups that specialize in the reintegration of detainees and runs psychological sessions to help the wards: If Muslims make up roughly 12 percent of the French population, in prison their number amount to more than 60 percent of the national total of detainees, making Islam the first religion of prison life. According to the political scientist Gilles Kepel, “The main prison ward union F.O. Pénitentiaire thinks it has no choice today but to negotiate with Islamists if they want to have a chance to keep a semblance of peace. The same way they used to do with the mob.”

‘You, your mission as a Muslim is to kill. Kill miscreants anywhere you find them.’

According to official French estimates, some 800 youngsters are on their way to Syria or, like Nemmouche, already back. Some of them are from a poor migrant background, some have done time, sure, but others just converted to Islam from middle-class French Catholic families, including an increasing number of teenage girls. What they do have in common, is that they return—when they do return—trained and, often enough, armed. The issue is so serious that a new law presented at the National Assembly July 8 proposes to forbid foreign travel to anyone suspected of participation in future terrorist activity. But how does one know this, exactly? And if a government forbids its citizens to travel in one country, where does it stop after that?

“We French have a specific problem with Syria,” argues Raphaël Glucksmann, the son of the philosopher André Glucksmann, who works on human rights issues. “We’ve been arguing since the beginning of the Syrian conflict that it was a just war. That Assad’s a butcher and should be disposed of. So, in that sense, Syria’s a place that legitimizes every aspiration to jihad. If you put aside the anti-Semitic element, what those youngsters are doing is actually in accordance to our own analysis. They have the courage to do what we do not dare to do. But you can’t put aside the anti-Semitic element. So, we want to help the Syrian opposition, and at the same time we’ve got to treat as potential terrorists the French people that act accordingly!”

According to Gilles Kepel, the Syrian momentum is but the latest episode of a more general renewal—“a postmodern Salafist Jihad of the poor,” as he calls it, as theorized by a Syrian engineer named Abu Mussab al-Suri, who trained in France and has written many thousands of pages that have been posted on the Internet. In those pages, al-Suri argues in favor of training young Europeans from migrant backgrounds to be later sent back to Europe to be sacrificed to the greater cause of jihad. Jewish secular places like museums or schools—not synagogues—are listed among the first targets—with the goal of deliberately victimizing Muslims, creating ethnic “Islamophobic” conflicts in Europe—and later on, religious war. It is, interestingly enough, the very same project that could be heard in the 1990s in some circles of the French extreme right. Why France has become so sensitive and porous to al-Suri’s ideas is another story.

***

Part two of France’s Toxic Hate will appear next Tuesday, with more from Roubaix.

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Who Is Mehdi Nemmouche, and Why Did He Want To Kill Jews?

In the first of a five-part series on growing anti-Semitism in France, an intimate look at the alleged Brussels Jewish museum shooter