Long before the truck rampage that killed at least 84 people in Nice on Thursday, the French Riviera city was a focal point in the broad network that sends young recruits to fight with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.
One jihadist recruiter in particular put Nice on the map for France’s counterterrorism officials: Omar Diaby, also known as Omar Omsen. Diaby rose to prominence after he produced a series of online propaganda videos. Following reports in August 2015 that he was killed in Syria, he reappeared in a French television report in May, claiming that he had faked his death in order to receive medical treatment.
Diaby was reportedly born in Dakar, Senegal in 1976, and grew up in Nice. Involved in criminal activity in his youth, he spent time in prison, and like many former inmates in France, he came to espouse extremism.
He first gained notoriety as early as 2012 as the producer of a series of crude videos urging Muslims to struggle against the west. The multi-part series remixes images of atrocities against Muslims with footage of religious sermons and even film dramatizations of the Muslim battle against the crusaders. The series is titled “19HH,” after the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks.
Diaby reportedly left for Syria in the summer of 2013, joining the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, although according to some reports he has since broken with the group. He was said to lead a group of fighters on the ground in Syria. In August 2015, he was reported killed by Syrian regime fire, but his death was never confirmed.
Then, in May, the television channel France 2 announced that it had been in contact with Diaby and obtained footage of him from inside his camp in Syria. “The emir Omar Omsen is not dead. His death was announced for a very precise reason,” Diabv told journalist Romain Boutilly.
Diaby claimed that he had spread news of his own death so that he could cross the border to Turkey in order to have surgery. He then allowed a cameraman to film him in Syria, directing which shots would be allowed, and then sent the footage to France 2. A short clip from the footage shows armed men driving through what appears to be a small Syrian town, and then arriving at a camp in a clearing in front of a cluster of pine trees.
TIME was unable to immediately verify the footage. Asked about the reports, Michael S. Smith, of the Kronos Advisory security consultancy says, “It would not be the first time a false death claim has been made about an IS member for the purpose of improving their maneuverability in the West.”
Diaby also gave an interview to at least one other foreign journalist, from the Daily Beast.
Back in Diaby’s former home in Nice, the city had become a node in the web of jihadist recruitment. By the start of 2016, at least 55 residents of Nice and the surrounding area had gone to fight with ISIS and other groups, according to The Economist.
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