Chartres 'Totally Shocked' a Suicide Bomber Lived There

The town of Chartres, an hour south of Paris, is quiet on Sunday. As police with attack dogs roam the streets of the French capital and military officers stand guard outside train stations, in Chartres the bakeries are shut, the cafes are empty and few people wander the cobbled streets.

It would seem almost like a regular Sunday in this sleepy place, were it not for a revelation that has sent shockwaves across the community: A suicide bomber in the Paris attacks that left 129 people dead apparently was one of their own.

Omar Ismaïl Mostefaï, 29, was one of four assailants suspected of storming the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris on Friday night, killing 89 people. Mostefaï, along with two others, detonated an explosive vest: he was identified only by the fingerprint of his severed thumb found at the site.

Although he was born in Courcouronnes, a town just south of Paris, according to the mayor of Chartres Jean-Pierre Georges, Mostefaï had lived in the city until 2012. By the time he left Chartres, he had accrued a criminal record with 10 convictions—and, according to the mayor, he had been radicalized at a local house of prayer.

"I'm totally shocked," says Bedouit Hosni, 19, who lives in the Madeleine neighborhood in Chartres, where Mostefaï is said to have lived with his family. "He lived just near me. Maybe I crossed him in the street. Maybe I would recognize him."

As he says this, the television in the electronics store where he works flashes to the apartment block where Mostefaï had reportedly lived.

"It's bizarre to see where you live on TV," he says. "It makes me mad. Now Muslims will be blamed for this. Even though it was just a crazy idea in someone's head."

Just up the street from Hosni's electronics store is Chartres Cathedral, which is world famous for its stained glass windows. On Sunday, however, there were few tourists around, the square deserted.

Mathilde, 22, walked by with her boyfriend. She declined to give her last name, but when asked how she felt about one of the Paris attackers living in her community, she says: "It was heartbreaking to see what was happening in Paris. But knowing that someone who lived in my town was responsible, someone I probably walked by on the street, just made everything feel so real."

Sylvia Jacob, 85, has lived in Chartres for 52 years. Wearing a bright pink beret and grey shawl, she is visibly shocked to learn that someone from her community had carried out such atrocities.

"It's not possible," she says. "La Madeleine is a calm and quiet neighborhood. There's never any problems there. It's quieter than the banlieue [suburbs] in Paris, I'll tell you that."

When asked whether there was ever any tension between Chartres's large Muslim population and the community at large, Jacob is quick to refute the suggestion: "We are all mixed in Chartres. My husband, his father was Greek, his mother was Turkish. These attackers could have come from anywhere, it is not problem from Chartres."

The Muslim community in Chartres is quick to distance itself from Mostefaï, too, denying vehemently that there is radicalism within their ranks.

"This is a calm, quiet place," says Tarek Chaisa, 36, a Muslim of Tunisian origin. "We are shocked by what has happened. But this is not Muslim people that have done this. It was one individual."

Chaisa is a regular attendee of the mosque in the Lucé neighborhood in Chartres where, according to reports, Mostefaï was a regular congregant.

A small, white nondescript building, the Lucé mosque hardly seems like the place where a young man would be spurred to brutal violence. Across the street, teenagers kick a soccer ball around on a basketball court, while nearby young children laugh as they play on the swings in a small park. The only real activity comes from the swarm of journalists parked outside, trying to get a peek into the mosque.

Chaisa is quick to affirm this peaceful, even banal, image of his community. While his young daughter holds onto his shirt and sucks on a pink lollipop, Chaisa says he's never heard anything nearing radicalism inside the mosque. He's never heard of Mostefaï, although as he says, "On Fridays there are up to 500 people at the mosque. How would we know this one person? I think he found his ideas elsewhere. Daesh did this," he says, using an Arabic word for ISIS, or the Islamic State.

Mostefaï is said to have traveled to Turkey in 2013, and according to the AFP, French investigators are trying to confirm reports that he was in Syria for several months in 2014.

Ikter, 15, who declines to give his last name for security reasons, affirms Chaisa's perception of the mosque. "I go to pray there everyday," he says, standing outside one of the large concrete housing blocks that border the mosque. "I've never heard anyone say anything against France, against anyone. That guy wasn't from here, not in our mosque."

Indeed, despite numerous reports that Mostefaï attended the Lucé mosque regularly, none of the half-a-dozen congregants that Newsweek spoke to outside the mosque say they had heard of Mostefaï before the Paris attacks. Likewise, they deny the suggestion that radicalism was preached there, although a young Moroccan man says that the mosque's imam, who has been there a year, speaks no French and all sermons are in Arabic: "We pray in Arabic," he says, by way of explanation. When asked for his name, he shrugs and says, "It's an Arabic name."

For many here, the horror of the attacks is still very much present. "What happened in Paris is shameful," says Farid, 38, who won't give his last name. "I don't have the words to express how I feel, for the parents, for the families. But it was not one of ours."

Back in the centre of town, the sun is setting, making the steeples of Chartres Cathedral glow a soft pink. Hosni is still at work in the electronics shop, watching the news for the latest developments in Paris: One of the surviving assailants is on the run from police. "It's scary," he admits. "It could have happened in Chartres."

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