Source: Financial Times

Propaganda of Senegal-born Omar Diaby entices jihadis to Syria.

Not far from the seafront where a Tunisia-born attacker killed at least 84 revellers on Thursday night — and maimed dozens more — another man has toiled for years to make the coastal town into one of France’s largest Jihadi hotbeds.

While it is better known for its carnival, its pebble beaches and its palm trees and luxury hotels, Nice has also distinguished itself for producing France’s biggest contingent of Islamist fighters, per inhabitant, largely because of Omar Diaby, one of its residents.

The 40-year-old Senegal-born Islamist, also known as Omar Omsen, has lured younger French Muslims to his extremist cause since 2012, tapping into Nice’s large Tunisian community.

There is no established connection between Mr Omsen and the Tunisian man who ploughed a lorry into the crowd gathered on the Promenade des Anglais seafront for Bastille Day celebrations on Thursday evening.

But the Islamist’s shadow looms large over the latest terror tragedy to strike France, according to Hugo Micheron, a Sciences Po researcher who specialises in French jihadism.

“Omar Omsen is a father figure for many Jihadis who come from the Nice region,” Mr Micheron said. “His influence extends beyond Jabhat al-Nusrah. His videos are held as references in the Jihadi sphere.”

France has supplied more foreign fighters to Isis than any other European country — an estimated 1,275. More than 100 hail from Nice and the surrounding region, according to Mr Micheron’s estimates. The town is among 18 across the country, along with Lunel, in the south of France, and Trappes, a Parisian suburb, that have emerged as gateways to Syria, he noted.

Jean-Charles Brisard, head of the Paris-based Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism, described the departures as a matter of “capillarity and emulation”, saying: “One person goes, and then a whole bunch follow. Omsen has been active in Nice and the region for a long time.”

In his latest book, Gilles Kepel, a professor at the Sciences Po institution and an expert in the emergence of radical Islam, identifies the Senegal-born immigrant as a central player in the development of several French Islamist terror cells.

“His name is linked to his exceptional online propagandist skills, which are key to understanding the reasons behind French jihadism,” Mr Kepel writes.

Beyond its glamorous image, Nice also features neighbourhoods that grapple with high crime and poverty. Many are located in the northeastern part of the town, where a large Tunisian community has settled. One is the Ariane district, where Omsen lived.

One sign of the local anxiety over security and immigration is the shift by Nice’s voters to the far-right National Party. Marion Marechal Le Pen, the niece of the far-right party leader, attracted more than a third of Nice’s votes in the first round of regional elections in November last year.

Born in Dakar, Omsen emigrated to Nice and settled in Ariane with his parents when he was seven.

He became radicalised as early as 2011, after spending time in jail for armed robbery. Identified by authorities as a potential threat after he got in touch with a network funnelling French Muslims to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was arrested a second time the same year. Omsen was released and expelled to Senegal in 2013.

In a series of videos in 2012, dubbed “19HH” in reference to the 19 suicide bombers from the 9/11 terror attacks — he tells the story of mankind through a lens of Muslim persecution. The film has proved a powerful propaganda tool to hook young people in France.

“A lot of jihadis I have interviewed refer to this video,” Mr Micheron said.

In Syria, Omsen, who has an international arrest warrant issued in his name, has become the self-proclaimed emir of a katiba, or fighting group, of French jihadis. Many of them hail from Nice.

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany


This post is also available in: French