PARIS – The beige, two-storey, housing association house in a quiet cul-de-sac in the French cathedral city of Chartres was as unremarkable as Omar Ismail Mostefai himself had seemed to neighbours when he lived there for several years until 2012.
â€œHis wife didnâ€™t work and they had a very young daughter, nothing stood out,â€ said the couple who lived opposite. â€œHe was 25 at the time. He always wore trainers and a cap, he was tall, he had long hair and a short beard and didnâ€™t dress in a religious way. He didnâ€™t work regularly, he had temporary jobs. There didnâ€™t seem to be anything odd. He didnâ€™t have visits,â€ the woman said.
Three years after his neighbours last saw him, Mostefai, 29, was one of three unmasked men who pulled up in a black Polo car in Paris on Friday night and entered a rock gig at the Bataclan concert hall before opening fire on the crowd with Kalashnikovs. Terrified survivors spoke of utter â€œcarnageâ€, in which the men shot at random and, when people threw themselves to the ground, turned their automatic weapons on them and kept firing. At least 89 people died there in the bloodiest of the coordinated attacks.
If Mostefai was the first to be identified of the seven dead gunmen and suicide bombers who carried out Friday nightâ€™s simultaneous attacks across Paris, it was because a severed fingertip allowed police to match his prints to the record of a driving offence.
Mostefai was French and was born and grew up on an estate in Courcouronnes in Essonne, 25km south of Paris. His parents, or at least his father, is believed to have been of Algerian descent. His profile and life history will be pored over by police and politicians grappling with the issue of homegrown terrorism â€” attackers who, like in the Charlie Hebdo and kosher grocery store massacres of January â€” were French born and bred and targeted France.
The estate where Mostefai grew up, Le Canal, in Courcouronnes, is calm and low-rise with buildings that are well cared for, many shops, a post office and a canal where one person had set up a fishing rod on Sunday afternoon. It is ethnically diverse, has a young population and a high proportion of social housing. It does not have decaying towerblocks, nor does it share the reputation of other much tougher estates in neighbouring Ã‰vry or nearby in Grigny.
But the banlieue question of the French attackers who grew up in the poor, segregated suburbs will now once again be pushed to the fore in the current atmosphere of political debate dominated by the rise of the far right and questions of national identity.
After Januaryâ€™s attacks by young men from poor backgrounds, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, who was once mayor of Ã‰vry, made the most damning indictment yet of the countryâ€™s longstanding bitter social divide, saying there was â€œterritorial, social and ethnic apartheidâ€ in France.
â€œWe mustnâ€™t tarnish everyone who lives on estates, that would be a real problem for France,â€ warned a retired Air France worker in Courcouronnes on Sunday.
Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed a female police officer then killed four in the kosher grocery siege in the same wave as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, came from the tough Grande Borne estate in Grigny only four miles away from where Mostefai grew up. Coulibaly was a convicted armed robber who had done time in Franceâ€™s notorious Fleury-MÃ©rogis prison, where he was radicalised. Mostefai had never been in prison but was convicted eight times for petty crime between the ages of 19 and 25. These included driving without a licence. It was not clear if he had had any involvement in small-scale drug dealing.
One man who was at high school with him said: â€œHe wasnâ€™t a troublemaker. He was someone who stood up for himself; you wouldnâ€™t provoke him because you knew that heâ€™d stand up for himself if you did. But he wasnâ€™t someone who went looking for problems. He was calm; he wasnâ€™t someone who youâ€™d notice, who stood out.â€
He said Mostefai went to Friday prayers and observed Ramadan, but at that time he did not seem to be someone very â€œseriousâ€ about religion.
Mostefai moved from Courcouronnes to Chartres after school. It was not clear whether his mother and siblings moved, too. His end-of-terrace house was near La Madeleine, a poor council estate in the city. One pensioner walking his dog shrugged: â€œIf young people had work, they wouldnâ€™t have time to commit idiotic atrocities like this. No work, no future.â€
In 2010, Mostefai had been the subject of a police â€œSâ€ file for radicalisation but the state prosecutor said he had never been implicated in any case of a terrorist organisation. Several homegrown terrorists before him had previously been the subject of the same kind of police file before later carrying out horrific attacks, including Mohamed Merah who carried out a gun attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 after deadly attacks on soldiers, and Cherif Kouachi, who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks with his brother.
Police are reported to be investigating whether Mostefai travelled to Syria in 2013â€“2014. If so, this would increase the pressure on French intelligence services in a country that has exported more jihadis than any other in Europe and where security services are challenged by monitoring those who return.
The local paper Le Journal du Centre reported Mostefai attended a mosque in LucÃ©, a town that borders Chartres, and could have followed a radical Belgium-based Islamist who visited the mosque.
The mayor of Chartres, Jean-Pierre Gorges, said: â€œThe question is whether there is a cell in Chartres or whether Mostefai was an isolated individual with other Belgian networks or others.â€
Outside the small mosque building next to high-rise council blocks in LucÃ©, Abdallah Benali from the team that had been running the mosque since 2013 said they did not know Mostefai and that the mosque respected the law and had always worked with all authorities. He said the Paris attacks were â€œa catastropheâ€.
A Moroccan 30-year-old who had attended the mosque since 2010 said he had never heard of any radical preachers there or heard of Mostefai. He condemened the attacks outright. â€œThe people who do this kind of thing are born in France, they have an identity problem,â€ he said.
Mostefaiâ€™s relatives in France were being questioned by police â€” a routine procedure in such cases. His brother, who voluntarily went to a police station in Essonne, told AFP he had lost touch with him for years, after a family conflict, and he thought he had been in Algeria. â€œIt has been a while since Iâ€™ve had any news of him,â€ he said. – CNN