At some point on Saturday, the crime scene investigators made a significant discovery on the floor of the Bataclan concert hall in Paris: a severed finger.
The finger was sufficiently intact for a fingerprint. The police records had a match: Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, born in a hospital in the suburb of Courcouronnes, some 30 kilometres south of Paris, in November 1985.
All of France got the confirmation it had been waiting for. At least one of the terrorists committing the atrocities of Friday was born and bred in France.
Ismaël Omar Mostefaï was one of the three men who opened fire and started shooting indiscriminately at a rock concert audience in the Bataclan club, shouting incoherent slogans about Syria and Iraq. Eventually, he blew himself up, killing many more through his final act. At least 89 people were killed in Bataclan alone. Dozens are still fighting for their lives in hospital.
It is Sunday, and Courcouronnes is bathing in sunlight. The streets are empty and the air feels crisp and fresh. Men dressed in warm puffy jackets are fishing by the canal.
The street in which Mostefaï grew up looks decent and welcoming enough. The three-storey houses are in good repair, with washing hung out to dry on balconies. Not exactly luxurious, but not depressing either.
The massive concrete monoliths emblematic of the most notorious French banlieus are nowhere to be seen here. A few raucous teenagers are hanging out in their tracksuits. One of them is carrying a football under his arm.
Mostefaï’s former friend and neighbour “ Khaled ” takes us into one of the small courtyards and points at a ground floor window. “That’s where they lived, that small window, second from the left.”
As a child, Khaled had lived with his family on the floor above Mostefaï, and he is back living there, this time because of his recent divorce.
“We grew up together,” he says and pauses. “This has changed my thinking completely. I used to think that people like that were born monsters.”
Khaled woke up to a shock on Saturday morning. French journalists were banging on his door, telling him what his childhood friend had become. Khaled could not believe his ears. He chose not to open the door.
He has agreed to speak to HS on the condition that his name is changed. He needs to protect his family.
“He was not a monster. Not even a criminal. He was just like the rest of us growing up on an estate,” he says.
Mostefaï had a record of minor offences that had on occasion landed him in police jail, including driving without a licence and suspected involvement in selling drugs, but he had never been to prison.
In fact, Khaled remembers Mostefaï as being more easy-going and relaxed than his two older brothers. “He was the first to leave a party and go home.”
On Sundays such as this, Khaled, Mostefaï and other kids from the block would be playing football. “His father would sometimes join us.”
Khaled remembers Mostefaï’s Algerian father as a devout Muslim. “He spent a lot of time at the mosque. He would sometimes say to me that I should marry a Muslim woman when I grew up.” The father was not, however, in any way a radical. “Those days people did not discuss geopolitics at the mosque.”
In their late teens, the two boys went their separate ways. One became an educator and a protector, while the other one turned into a killer.
One of the decisive moments in Khaled’s life was when he discovered parkour. Parkour was developed in the 1980s in the very suburbs where the boys grew up. The purpose of the exercise is to move around an urban setting, making use of different structures in the fastest and most efficient way possible. Sometimes you need to jump, sometimes you have to climb to negotiate an obstacle. “For me, parkour was the real jihad. I was fighting against myself, and the aim was to exceed myself. You come up against an obstacle you cannot pass at first. Then you practice and practice, over and over again, until you can. It gives you confidence.”
Parkour opened up a new world for Khaled. There was nothing to do in the suburbs in the evenings, but through parkour he met and made friends with new people from other parts of Paris.
Soon he started teaching parkour to a group of young people. He saw how these kids found new meaning and energy in their lives. “The most important thing is to have a passion. Something that you want to do without counting the hours.”
At this time, some ten years ago, Mostefaï moved further away from Paris to Chartres. Khaled recalls how Mostefaï stopped staying in any contact with his family. The other brothers still occasionally came to see their old friends.
At first, Mostefaï was probably doing quite well. He met a woman and they had a daughter. However, at some point along the way, he got involved with the wrong crowd. “In the end, it is not the physical environment that radicalises you. It is the people and ideas that you encounter,” Khaled sums it up. “It is not something you can see.”
The person Mostefaï would have been better off staying clear of probably arrived in Paris from Belgium. According to the French newspaper Le Journal du Centre, Chartres was home to a small radical Islamist group that was regularly visited and preached to by a Belgian-based radical Moroccan imam.
After 2012, nobody had heard anything of Mostefaï. According to information obtained from the mayor of Chartres, he had kept to himself living quietly in his rented flat. His neighbours thought he had moved away. Perhaps the Belgian man had told him to keep a low profile.
According to the newspaper Le Monde, from then on, things escalated rapidly: in 2013, Mostefaï probably travelled to Turkey and from there to Syria.
In the meantime, Khaled had become a bouncer. He, too, categorises people, he admits. “But not based on their religion or skin colour. I discriminate based on whether you are in a positive or negative mindset. If you are giving off negative vibes, I will not let you in.”
In the past few months, Khaled has been working in the same location where Mostefaï struck on Friday night: in the restaurant district of the tenth arrondissement, which fills each weekend with young revellers of all colours and backgrounds.
Khaled was on shift in one of the bars on Friday night when the endless rounds of gunshots started ringing in the streets. Khaled ordered everyone in from the outside area of the bar and locked the doors. After that, he stayed inside the bar with the customers late into the night, way past closing time. The situation was unclear and it was not certain whether it was safe for people to start making their way home.
Only a couple of hundred metres away, Mostefaï carried on shooting people in the back.
Khaled looks down on his street, warm in the Sunday afternoon sun, with an earnest expression and shakes his head. “It’s madness. Madness.”
He has a son, and Khaled will teach him parkour, if he wants. ”I am not going to push him. It’s entirely up to him.”