PARIS: Despite its reputation as a jet set Riviera resort, Nice has become a hotbed of radical Islam in recent years and home to one of France’s main jihadists recruiters, security sources told Agence France-Presse.
Only last month Oumar Diaby gave an interview in Syria to French television where he claimed he was at the head of a “katiba” or cell of some 30 French fighters, mostly from in and around the city.
The former petty criminal was a radical imam in Nice before leaving in 2013 to fight with the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda.
At the same time, 19 suspects linked to a separate radical Islamist group based in the neighboring Riviera town of Cannes are awaiting trial accused of plotting to attack French military and Jewish targets in 2012.
Several from the Cannes group are believed to have returned to France after fighting in Syria.
France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday the truck attack the previous night in Nice that killed 84 people is “probably linked to radical Islam,” but he gave no further details.
Investigators said the so-called Cannes-Torcy cell was one of the most potentially dangerous they had ever dismantled.
A security source told AFP that they were also planning an attack on Nice’s carnival, the third biggest in the world after Venice and Rio.
Diaby—who now calls himself Omar Omsen—also traveled to Syria and put out a phony announcement claiming he had been killed in the hopes of throwing authorities off his trail, the source said.
Before his departure he had worked in a Nice snack bar called “La Nosra,” which had been under surveillance.
Security services believe the 40-year-old was also behind an “intense online recruitment campaign” in March, and Diaby’s name came up after the arrest of a man near Paris who was suspected of planning attacks.
The suspect, named as Youssef E, had already been jailed in 2014 alongside two other men for trying to go to fight in Syria.
The trio had met in Dec. 2011 in Nice at a gathering organized by Diaby to talk about “hijira” (emigration).
And in Feb. 2015, only weeks after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris, Moussa Coulibaly, a young man from the suburbs of the capital, stabbed three soldiers who were guarding a Jewish center in Nice.
“We know that there was radicalization going on in Nice,” said Sebastien Pietrasanta, a French MP who sat on the committee of inquiry into the two sets of terror attacks on Paris in 2015.
He said after the Coulibaly attack that Nice was the only area outside of Paris to be put on “attack alert”.
Another source added that Diaby was close to the Forsane Alizza terror cell, which French police dismantled in 2012.
Diaby gave the interview last month to a Syrian cameraman in the coastal Latakia region of western Syria after French journalist Romain Boutilly managed to establish contact with him through intermediaries and social media.
The Nice attack is the third major strike against France in less than 18 months.
It comes eight months after a state of emergency was declared when Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers attacked bars, restaurants, a concert hall and the national stadium in Paris, killing 130 people.
In January last year 17 people were killed in gun attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.