In the Brussels bar they ran before the authorities closed it down for being a drug den a few weeks ago, brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam were known to be fond of drink and a joint, according to friends.
As they drank their beer in Les Beguines, their nightspot in the Belgian capital’s largely immigrant Molenbeek area, there was no sign in their behavior that they were radical Islamists who would take part in the Paris attacks.
“We’re still in shock,” said Youssef, a local man in his thirties wearing a white tracksuit with a red baseball cap, standing in front of the bar’s closed shutters. “They were friends of ours, big smokers, big drinkers, but not radicals.”
Their family is also in shock, with a third brother, Mohamed, who was arrested but released without charge after the attacks, lighting candles for the victims on the balcony of the family home during a vigil in Molenbeek on Wednesday.
The last time many people heard of Brahim and Salah was on Nov. 5 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 odor 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 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 practicing 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 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,” claims 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.