PARIS – A young man was sitting on the sidewalk of a small side street in the northeastern suburb of Paris Saint-Denis Monday. He looked Middle Eastern, but he didn’t have a beard. He was sitting on the sidewalk, and when a girl came by, he tried to hit on her.
“He wasn’t really doing anything, just sitting there,” said Yasmin, a resident in the neighborhood who gave only her first name, fearing repercussions. She noticed him because it was a small street, and she notices most people in the area, especially since she has two kids who often play outside. When she entered her apartment minutes later and turned on the television, there he was: the same man, but with a long beard. It was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, the suspected mastermind of the Paris terror attacks Friday that killed 129 and critically wounded dozens more, in a news segment about the ongoing manhunt for him.
Authorities tracked him to an apartment in that neighborhood in a predawn raid two days later that saw eight people arrested and at least two dead when Abaaoud's female cousin activated a suicide vest.
Almost all of the residents of Rue du Corbillon, that tiny cobblestone side street, were shocked by the events of Wednesday morning’s raid and that Abaaoud had chosen to hide out in Saint-Denis. Residents told International Business Times that the neighborhood had problems with drugs and petty crime before but that terrorism was something entirely new.
The population of Saint-Denis is mostly North African or of North African descent. They are Algerian, Moroccan, sometimes Tunisian and West African, with many feeling disenfranchised as they struggle with unemployment – youth unemployment in Saint-Denis is 40 percent, compared to 11 percent unemployment in France – and many young people turn to drugs or stealing.
The neighborhood was also the site of a series of violent riots in 2005 following the death of two teenagers who were electrocuted by accident while running from the police. Years of anger at unemployment and police brutality burst into violence following news of their death, as people took to the streets burning cars, looting stores and marching in protest.
Some residents say that despite its reputation as a crime-ridden neighborhood, Saint-Denis is no worse than many other neighborhoods in or near Paris; it’s only that those neighborhoods don’t receive as much media attention. “Saint-Denis is the victim of bad publicity,” said Ali Boutikan, who has owned the Michelet bar on rue du Corbillon for 22 years.
Of Algerian descent originally, Boutikan, 64, said he had never had any safety problems and preferred to stick to himself, doing his work and not meddling in his neighbors' affairs. “It’s like any other place,” he said. “There are the rich and the poor, those who can get by and those who can’t.”
Saimir Mile, 40, who has lived a block away from rue du Corbillon for eight years said he has never felt unsafe there. “My wife has walked home by herself at one in the morning and she’s never had any problems,” said Mile. He said he was shocked when he found out that there were terrorists right next door to him. “We’re not in Syria; we’re not in Iraq,” he said.
Other residents did not have such a positive view of the neighborhood, but they said it was still not a breeding ground of radical Islam. “Of course I was surprised,” said Malwella Risi, who lives next door to the apartment where the terrorists were and was trapped inside for seven hours during the shootout. She, too, said she keeps to herself, and tries to avoid spending time in her "sketchy" street. “It’s the kind of place where you could buy crack.”
Risi, like many other Saint-Denis residents, was relieved Thursday that the enclave's brief encounter with terrorism appeared to be over. “I’m just glad that after everything that happened, it wasn’t for nothing. I say ‘bravo’ to the police," she said.