Never flagged as a danger, Nice attacker traveled unimpeded

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Police stand next to flowers and candles set on the steps of the Notre Dame church in Nice, France, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. A new suspect is in custody in the investigation into a gruesome attack by a Tunisian man who killed three people in a French church. France heightened its security alert amid religious and geopolitical tensions around cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

TUNIS – The 21-year-old Tunisian behind the attack that killed three in a Nice, France, church had small-time run-ins with the law as a teen, but nothing that alerted Tunisian authorities to possible extremist leanings.

That missing red flag meant that when he eventually was served an expulsion order from Italy, which he reached illegally by boat, he was basically free to go where he pleased. So Ibrahim Issaoui then traveled apparently unimpeded to France.

Italy’s interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, told The Associated Press on Friday that Issaoui had not set off warning bells with Tunisian authorities or intelligence services. She added that Italy’s overburdened repatriation centers had no place for him, despite agreements with Tunisia governing the return of citizens who don’t qualify for asylum in Italy.

“Obviously, we give precedence to people who are signaled by law enforcement or by Tunisian authorities,’’ Lamorgese said. “The number of spots are not infinite, and he could not therefore be placed inside a repatriation center.’’

The spokesperson for Tunisia’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office, Mohsen Dali, said Issaoui is not classified as being a terrorist element to the security and judicial authorities.

“During his teenage years, he was involved in common law cases for violence,” he said, without elaborating.

Issaoui’s mother told investigators that he led a normal life for someone of his age, Dali said. He drank alcohol and wore ordinary clothes. He started praying two years ago, but did not have any suspicious associates, he said.

According to Tunisian media, Issaoui grew up in a family of 10 children in Sfax, an important economic hub in southern Tunisia, and worked as a mechanic in a workshop for a monthly salary of 300 dinars (less than 100 euros). He then opened a vegetable stall in a shop that also sold gasoline illegally, Dali told the AP.