AFP — Born in one of the poorest towns in France, Brussels shooting suspect Mehdi Nemmouche was abandoned by his mother, shunted from one foster home to another and slowly evolved from a petty criminal to a hardened jihadist.
The 29-year-old repeat offender was described by one of his aunts as a quiet, harmless person who managed to attend university for a year but snapped ties with the family after his latest stint in prison.
Caught during a random check by customs officials on Friday in Marseille in a bus coming from Amsterdam via Brussels, Nemmouche apparently claimed responsibility for the May 24 attack in Brussels’ Jewish museum which killed three people outright and left another man in a critical state.
The claim was made in a video found on him and showing the arms he used during the attack.
Born in Roubaix in northern France, Nemmouche never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother when he was three months old.
He grew up in care and foster homes until his grandmother took him in when he was 17.
Nemmouche’s first brush with the law occurred when he was 19 when he was caught driving without a valid license. Thereafter came a succession of petty thefts and robberies.
He was convicted seven times and jailed five times.
“He is nice, intelligent, educated and has done a year at university,” Nemmouche’s aunt said, adding that the family was “very shocked.”
Lawyer Soulifa Badaoui, who first defended Nemmouche in 2009, described her former client as “the last person” who could have staged the attack.
Nemmouche’s aunt said he was taciturn. “He is someone who kept things bottled up inside him, one could never tell what he was thinking.”
‘An enormous waste’
It was during Nemmouche’s last stint in prison, between 2007 and 2012, that he became radicalized, according to Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
Nemmouche’s family, who live in a rough neighborhood in the northern town of Tourcoing near Roubaix, said he gradually snapped ties with them during his incarceration.
“It is him who didn’t want to give us his news because he did not want to cause us any problems,” a relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
His aunt said Nemmouche paid a brief visit after he was released from jail toward the end of 2012.
“He seemed normal as always and in good health,” she said. “We never saw him again.”
According to French authorities Nemmouche left for Syria on December 31, 2012 — just three weeks after his release from prison.
He is believed to have stayed there for more than a year, fighting with jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Syria’s most extremist group.
He returned to Europe in March this year after spending time in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. But security officials lost track of him after he landed in Germany.
Badaoui said she felt the system had failed her client.
“I have the feeling of an enormous waste. We did not succeed in making an intelligent young man with a lively spirit into the average French citizen,” she said.
The fact that the area he grew up in is marked by “high unemployment with many youths becoming desperate and not finding solutions to their problems” did not help, she added.
In 1995, 10 men from Nemmouche’s hometown, nine of whom had fought alongside Islamist fighters in Bosnia, formed the infamous Roubaix gang, which staged robberies and tried to set off a car bomb in front of Lille’s police headquarters in 1996.