Wanted suspected terrorist Salah Abdeslam and Hasna Ait Boulahacen, who died on in Wednesday's terror raid. Photo: Police nationale/AFP
Hasna Aitboulahcen, who was found dead after Wednesday's Saint-Denis raid, has been described as a “French party-girl turned radical Islamist”.
Her family said she was a troubled party-girl who lurched towards radical Islam about six months ago, and her friends described her as “a bit wacky”, noting her penchant for
wearing a cowboy hat and boots.
Her brother, who remained anonymous, told the AFP news agency:
“She was unstable, she created her own bubble. She wasn't looking to study religion, I have never even seen her open a Koran.”
Her longtime friend Jerome described her as a bon vivant who “smoked occasionally and drank on nights out”.
Meanwhile, the brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam were known to be fond of drink and a joint, according to friends.
“We're still in shock,” said Youssef, a local man in his thirties wearing a white tracksuit with a backwards red baseball cap, standing in front of the bar's closed shutters.
“They were friends of ours, big smokers, big drinkers, but not radicals.”
The last time many people heard of Brahim and Salah was on November 5th when local authorities shut down the bar on the ground floor of a red brick building after police said it was “used for the consumption of banned hallucinogenic substances”.
“There was a strong odour of drugs and the ashtrays contained partly smoked joints,” the closure notice said.
Just over a week later it emerged that Brahim, 31, had blown himself up outside a cafe in Boulevard Voltaire during the Paris attacks.
Salah, 26, is now one of France's most wanted men for his alleged role in the atrocity.
“Lots of people were smoking drugs there, it went too far,” said Abdel, 34, who has been coming to the bar since his teens.
“The atmosphere was more festive under the old owner, you could play Playstation there. Of course there was dope there, like in most of the bars here, but it was discreet.
“With Brahim, as soon as you went in he jumped at you to try to sell you something.”
Islam seemed to have little role in their lives, friends said.
“On Fridays (when Muslims hold their main weekly prayers) they would stay smoking on the terrace. I never saw them at the mosque,” said Karim, 27, who lives in the flat above the bar.
Jamal, a teacher and friend of the brothers, agreed.
“They weren't practising Muslims. They didn't have big beards, they wore jeans and sneakers, and they drank their Jupiler (popular Belgian beer brand) like everyone else,” he said.
“Their lives were the same as all young people: they liked football, going clubbing, coming back with girls.”
Salah was known as a ladies' man who would buy aftershave and teeth whitening products at the local market.
“He was very charming, he liked to take care of his looks,” said market manager Pharred.
So how did they turn into jihadists?
“Meeting the wrong people at the wrong time,” explained Jamal.
Salah Abdeslam was fired as a technician on the Brussels trams for skipping work at the beginning of 2011 — and around the same time he was arrested for robbery along with another Molenbeek native called Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Police only made the link after the Paris attacks, but Abaaoud went on to become one of Belgium's most notorious jihadists and, allegedly the mastermind of the massacre in the French capital.
“We can assume that Abaaoud taught him taqiyya — the Islamic theology of dissimulation — to fool the security and intelligence services,” said Mathieu Guidere, a French terrorism expert.
Under this strategy, set out in manuals published by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, would-be “martyrs” can smoke cannabis or blaspheme to hide their religion from the authorities.
It appeared to work.
Brahim tried to travel to Syria in January this year but was stopped at the Turkish border. Belgian authorities interviewed him and Salah on their return but took no further action, and did not put them on a terror watch-list, saying they showed “no sign of a possible danger”.
Their family was deceived too.
“My brothers were normal,” Mohamed Abdeslam said earlier this week.
Drinking and smoking are just minor points to demonstrate the lack of a traditional Muslim life. The main standout from ordinary Muslims was clearly their desire to kill, a fact that was perhaps most apparent in the suspected “ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was also killed in Wednesday's raid.
His own Muslim father said that the man had brought disgrace on the family, not long after he featured in an Isis video, laughing as he drove a car which dragged mutilated bodies behind it.
He was later linked to terror attacks in Verviers in Belgium, shortly after January's Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
“Why in the name of God, would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country,” said his father, Omar Abaaoud, whose family movedto Belgium 40 years ago from Morocco.
“Abdelhamid has brought shame on our family. Our lives have been destroyed… I never want to see him again.”