What motivated the Paris attackers? The little that is known about their lives reveals varying motives, mostly personal and psychological. But they all had one thing in common: none had a solid religious background.
He was nice, sociable, communicative and open-minded. There was nothing about him that hinted at a future as a violent criminal. That’s how a former schoolmate described Abdelhamid Abaaoud (pictured above), the ringleader of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Back in the late 1990s, they were classmates at College Saint-Pierre in Brussels. “He was one of us. He was not ostracized; no one treated him in a racist manner,” recalled the classmate in an interview with the Belgian newspaper “Sudinfo.” “He liked horsing around, flirting with the girls and playing soccer.”
Abaaoud could have led a completely normal, perhaps even successful life. His parents would have liked that – they had sent him to a posh school, one where even wealthy Belgians enroll their children. The young man evidently felt comfortable there, as seen in a 1999 class photo. He spent 12 years there as a seemingly harmless and friendly person.
‘Nasty piece of work’
But then he changed: He started bullying his classmates and teachers, he stole wallets and his tone was rude. Another classmate remembered him “a nasty piece of work.” It didn’t take long for Abaaoud to become a criminal. In 2006, he was sentenced to community service for a violent robbery, and in 2011 he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
By the time a Belgian court sentenced him to 40 months in prison earlier this year for assault and rioting in the Brussels subway, he was already in Syria. In March 2014, French journalists stumbled across his cell phone at the Turkish-Syrian border. It was full of pictures, among them snapshots featuring a naked woman on a motorcycle and luxury cars. The chronologically ordered pictures eventually show him becoming a jihadist, brandishing weapons and dressed in full military gear.
What was the breaking point in the young man’s life? Most clues reveal very little and only lend themselves to speculation. Was it mental instability or excessive overconfidence? An interview that Abaaoud gave in February to the online jihadist magazine “Dabiq” gives room for both interpretations. “Allah has chosen me,” is how he explains the fact that his journeys between the Middle East and Europe were not detected. He believed that intelligence agencies were not capable of tracking him down – by then he was a known terrorist – because he was blessed by a higher power. “All this was arranged by Allah for us,” he said. Time after time, authorities failed to trace him. “It was nothing less than a gift from Allah.”
Excitement, fame and glory
The pictures that show Abaaoud with the stance of a fighter, standing among the corpses of his enemies, offer another interpretation: jihad is one big adventure. “Young people who made their way to Afghanistan in the 1990s to follow Osama bin Laden were fascinated by one thing in particular,” wrote terrorism researcher Marc Sageman in his 2008 book “Leaderless Jihad.” “They were looking for excitement, fame and glory. They wanted to impress their friends.”
Sageman explained that fantasies and emotions are more important than clear ideas. But he also gave accounts of fighters who were mainly driven by the desire to prevent their fellow believers from suffering. This may also be a factor for some jihadists who fought in Syria and Iraq – at least in the early stages of the war when jihadists did not commit the atrocities that “Islamic State” (IS) has become known for.
The lives of the Paris assassins do not suggest that helping was their motive. Self-affirmation and search for meaning most likely played a role in their personal development. Their personalities can be linked to a phenomenon that the French Islam scholar Olivier Roy described in his 2012 book “La Sainte Ignorance” (“Holy Innocence”): the separation of religion from its original cultural context.
Roy argued that every religion regulates the social order of the faithful. But this is no longer the case for Islam in Europe, he said: Islam is no longer connected to social order, which results in uncontrolled religious development, even anarchy. Thus, anything is possible, even extremism.
“The loss of a cultural environment allows the stretch between believers and non-believers to become a barrier. They have no common values or any other common points of reference,” he wrote. Systematic alienation ensues, and anything foreign becomes an enemy. These factors give one’s own identity sharpness and form.
Never read the Quran
It’s quite possible that Hasna Aitboulahcen, the woman sought by authorities for her involvement in the Paris attacks, was looking for just that – a sharpened identity. She died during the police raids in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on Wednesday, after having provided shelter for Abaaoud.
A witness who knew Aitboulahcen described her as “talkative, always in chat rooms and little bit crazy.” She spent a large part of her childhood living with a foster family. Later, as a young woman, she drank alcohol, smoked and had many relationships with boys. The witness told the Belgian newspaper “DH” that she was not religious. “She lived in her own world, had never been seriously interested in religion and never read the Quran.”
But then, half a year ago, she very quickly turned to Islam. The first step was the hijab, the concealment of the body and then, the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered. Aitboulahcen, who had previously worn cowboy boots and hats, had just put the bankruptcy of her small construction company behind her. She was also known to the police for drug trafficking. Six months later she died in a suicide bombing in Paris. Is death the final expression of failed autonomy or absolute destructiveness?
A Western family
Samy Amimour, one of the terrorists who killed 89 people in the Bataclan concert hall, came from a “Westernized” family: his Berber mother from Algeria is a feminist and his father has nothing to do with religion. Amimour graduated from a French high school, where he focused on literature. But he did not go to university. Instead, he became a bus driver.
It’s possible that his job led him to Islam and later, Islamism. The French newspaper “Le Monde” has reported that an increasing number of ethnic Arabs working for RATP, the municipal transport company in Paris, have been turning to Islamic fundamentalism in recent years. Maybe Amimour did the same, before setting off for Syria in autumn 2013.
“Dad, you must not be selfish,” he wrote his father from Syria. “You wanted me to become a lawyer or something. But that is rigid idea. Here, I’m doing what I want to do.”