From Paris suburb to bloody attack, portrait of IS jihadis

DRANCY, France — Even under extended police questioning, Samy Amimour never hid his disdain for France, his desire to leave, or his belief that the apocalypse was near. But he told investigators he would not kill: “I am against the murder of innocents, no matter where they are.”

Three years later, Amimour returned from Syria, gunned down dozens of innocents at a rock show, and died inside the Bataclan with a suicide belt strapped to his body.

Court documents, transcripts of hours of investigator interviews, and phone and bank records seen by The Associated Press trace the path of Amimour and two of his closest friends from the Paris suburb of Drancy to Syria’s war zone.

Amimour and Charaffe El Mouadan, the trio’s charismatic leader who would take the nom de guerre Souleymane, would end up dead. The third, Samir Bouabout, is believed to be in Syria still.

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Drancy is a short ride from Paris on one of the unreliable suburban trains that feed into the city. Ethnically mixed, solidly middle class, the town has a mix of single-family homes and unlovely but serviceable apartment complexes. Amimour grew up on the third floor of a small building; the tidy houses of his two friends are a short walk away.

A shared love of soccer drew them together as young adolescents, with Islam serving as the glue that held them in the same orbit over the years to come. By 2012, they were in their mid-20s, each living with his parents. El Mouadan told investigators joblessness suited him, by allowing him to perform his daily prayers.

“The time when I was working for a company I couldn’t practice my religion correctly. That’s why I want to leave and live in a Muslim country,” he said.

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Amimour was the only one with steady work — after a stint as a mail sorter, and brief jobs at H&M and the Carrefour grocery chain, he was hired as a bus driver in 2011. His routes took him through the neighborhoods of his childhood, with of the stops just outside his apartment complex. By most measures, it was a good job.

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He hated it.

On Oct 5, 2012, Amimour handed in his resignation letter in person. Ten days later, after his arrest on charges of trying to join a foreign terrorist organization, a seemingly astonished officer asked him why he had quit his job.

“There are a lot of things in the job that don’t mesh with my personality,” he said. “”I was often pushed to the edge by frequent aggressions and provocations by passengers. Physically also. Since I stopped I have far less back pain and I didn’t want to be destroyed by the age of 35.”

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But his resignation was prompted as well by plans he and his two friends had hatched to leave France. El Mouadan did most of the legwork, making inquiries about Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and making Facebook contact with another French speaker who encouraged him to go to Mali.

It was El Mouadan who first signed up for a shooting class in early 2012 at a gun club with ties to the police. He told his friends to sign up as well, suggesting they first shave their beards in order to get the required doctor’s certificate. Both signed up for a class in April.

For reasons unexplained, El Mouadan and Amimour each took out loans of 20,000 euros ($21,700) loans, parking the money in their accounts.

Traveling to North Africa in late spring of 2012, El Mouadan sent his new wife links to jihadi videos to watch while he was gone: “Once we get things clear and you’ve seen the videos and you understand everything, you will change how you think.” In May, he promised to take her to live in the mountains and “go to war.”

That summer, French investigators took notice of the three, carrying out surveillance operations that included posting officers at their homes and even snapping high definition photos of El Mouadan at the Paris airport. In early October, the inquiry shifted to high gear, with increasingly frantic requests for GPS tracking, phone and bank records and, in the case of Amimour, work and vacation schedule.

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They were arrested at dawn on Oct. 15, undergoing days of questioning in custody about their planned trip before they were finally released.

Amimour was unambiguous about France: “There is a sense of oppression toward the Muslim community, of stigmatization by the media, that weighs on everybody. For example at work you cannot do prayers at the moment they need to be done. If a woman wants to wear a veil, it’s a problem. If you want to grow a beard, that also. And then there is an environment that doesn’t conform to Islam. Which is normal in a non-Muslim country, but difficult to live for a Muslim.”

He talked about the apocalypse, which he said he sensed was near, echoing a central tenet of the Islamic State group that he would ultimately join, and he said he wanted to prepare by “becoming more religious and protecting myself geographically. To distance myself from major cities and their evils.”

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All three young men denied they meant any harm. All three left for Syria less than a year later.

Investigators have not publicly pinpointed when Amimour returned to France. His family apparently learned he had returned only after he was identified as one of the suicide attackers inside the Bataclan on Nov. 13, 2015.

Survivors of that terrifying night said two of the gunmen — one of them possibly Amimour — surveyed their bloody work and debated what to do next.

“Should we call Souleymane?” one asked, according to French media. “We will deal with this our own way,” came the response.

A total of 130 people died that night, most of them at the rock concert.

U.S. airstrikes killed El Mouadan on Dec. 24, the military said, describing him as an Islamic State leader with direct links to the Nov. 13 bloodshed who “was actively planning attacks against the West.”

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