Hasna Aït Boulahcen: 'party girl' killed in Paris terror siege

Friends and relatives describe how 26-year-old was into drinking and dancing, but suddenly adopted strict Islamic dress six months ago

A female terror suspect who died during a police siege in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis did not blow herself up, French investigators have revealed, but was killed when somebody standing next her detonated a suicide vest.

The body of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, widely believed to be France’s first female kamikaze, was one of three found in a third-floor flat at rue du Corbillon in the suburb of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, after a seven-hour shootout on Wednesday morning.

Amateur video of the police shootout, which was shown on French television, captured a member of the armed intervention force shouting: “Where’s your boyfriend?” A woman’s voice replies: “It’s not my boyfriend,” before a volley of shots and a loud explosion is heard.

A neighbour, Christian, 20, reported hearing a blonde woman he believed was Aït Boulahcen shouting “help me, help me, help me,” and police ordering her to raise her hands before hearing a burst of gunfire.

Investigators were unable to say whether the suspect who triggered a suicide vest was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris bombings and shootings a week ago, that left 130 dead. The apartment was completely destroyed and investigators have had difficulty identifying what was left of the bodies inside.

On Friday evening, a spokesperson for the Paris prosecutor’s office told the Guardian: “We have to be extremely careful because we do not have all the identities, but I can tell you that Hasna was not the kamikaze.”

“At the moment we cannot say if it was Abaaoud who blew himself up,” she added.

It was Aït Boulahcen, who friends said had been radicalised only six months ago, who led investigators to the Saint-Denis apartment, where at least six terror suspects were holed up and possibly planning a further attack.

Her phone was being tapped and her bank account monitored. She had expressed a wish to travel to Syria and become a jihadi, but recordings of her phone conversations allegedly showed she was “in a panic” when she learned her cousin Abaaoud had returned to Europe from Syria and was in France.

Aït Boulahcen has been described by friends and relatives as an unstable, lost soul who until recently smoked, drank vodka and liked to party. She was said to have “lived in her own world” after a troubled and disruptive childhood.

Paris investigators formally identified her on Friday after DNA tests on human remains found in the rubble of the apartment. A passport in her name was found in a handbag nearby.

Her mother said she had been brainwashed by extremists and apparently taken up with an Islamic State cell led by Abaaoud.

Neighbours on the run-down estate where her mother lived said they had last seen her 10 days ago.

Paris police talk to Hasna Aitboulahcen during St-Denis raid

They said they had been shocked when the young woman, described as a talkative tomboy who wore jeans and sunglasses, transformed into an apparently devout Muslim around six months ago.

Aït Boulahcen exchanged her trademark cowboy hat and boots for a long robe and a full veil. “She started wearing the jilbab [the long, loosely fitted outer garment] then a month later she was wearing the niqab [which covers the face],” a man called Youssouf, who said he was her brother, told AFP. “She was living in her own world. I’d never known her study religion or even open a Qur’an.”

Born in August 1989, Aït Boulahcen was a toddler when her family moved to the Rose-des-Vents (Compass Rose) estate, known locally as The 3,000 (the number of apartments), in Aulnay-souys-Bois, whose romantic name belies its reputation as one of Paris’s most troubled suburbs.

Her parents, both from Morocco, separated shortly after the move, and her father moved out and went to work for Peugeot in Lorraine, eastern France.

French media reported that Aït Boulahcen’s was placed with a foster family from the age of eight until she was 15. “At first everything went well. She was a child like any other,” said her foster mother, who insisted on remaining anonymous. However, there was one thing that marked her out from other children, the foster mother added: she never showed or sought the slightest sign of affection.

Her foster mother believed her troubles followed the monthly visits to one of her parents. “For me, the problems stemmed from there,” she said. On 11 September 2001, she was shocked to discover Aït Boulahcen “applauding in front of the television” at reports of the attacks in New York.

In the end she was “doing just what she wanted”, sometimes shouting, other times sulking and refusing to speak. “She would roll herself up in her duvet with her head hidden. She would say the devil was there in the night,” the foster mother said.

At the age of 15, Aït Boulahcen walked out on the foster family. “When she left, I told myself, she is lost,” said the foster mother, adding that she had not seen her former charge since 2008. On Thursday, when she saw her again, it was on the television and Aït Boulahcen was dead.

Youssouf, her brother, said: “As she grew up, she lacked points of reference and in the end chose this carefree attitude, running away more and more often, hanging out with dubious people.”

He added: “She was living in her own world. She was not interested in studying religion. She was permanently on her phone, looking at Facebook or WhatsApp. I told her to stop all this, but she wouldn’t listen. She ignored my numerous attempts to give her advice, telling me I wasn’t her dad or her husband and I should leave her alone.”

Youssouf said his relationship with his sister was complicated. “She spent her time criticising everything. She refused to accept any advice, she didn’t want to sort herself out. On the rare occasions that I spoke to her it was to tell her to behave better, to have a better attitude, to be more easygoing about her strict dress code.

“I was never very close to her because we lived apart but during the opportunities I had to talk to her she was full of enthusiasm, although her instability always dragged her down, she was not grounded and went from one life project to another, without question.”

The apartment block in Creutzwald where Hasna Aït Boulahcen’s father lives.
The apartment block in Creutzwald where Hasna Aït Boulahcen’s father lives. Photograph: Action Press/Rex Shutterstock

Youssouf said that in one of their last conversations his sister had told him: “Live your life and I’ll live mine.” He said she went to live with a friend in Drancy about three weeks ago.

Khemissa, one of Aït Boulahcen’s close friends, told Le Parisien she had a reputation as a “crazy girl … who smoked dope and danced all night on the street, in rapper or cowboy mode, with her cowboy boots.

“She had a joie de vivre, she loved life. But she got on to a bad path, she allowed herself to be influenced,” Khemissa said. “She told me she was going to Syria to fight, but because she was a bit crazy, I didn’t take her seriously.”

Another friend said: “She drank in the evenings. During Ramadan she would drink until drunk. Vodka, that was her favourite tipple.”

Those who knew Aït Boulahcen at Creutzwald, where her guitar-playing father lived, described her as an extrovert who “loved partying and going to clubs” as well as drinking and occasionally smoking.

“She had lots of boyfriends, but nothing serious. She had no real friends, just people she hung out with. When you don’t have a family it’s easier to get into bad things,” one friend said. “She wasn’t religious at all,” another added.

At one point she was registered as the owner of a building company, Beko Construction, which appears to have gone into liquidation two years ago.

Her mother, 58, who was taken into police custody after her daughter’s links with terrorist groups was revealed, said Aït Boulahcen had undergone a “metamorphosis … a brainwashing”.

She added: “She spent all her time criticising, wouldn’t accept any advice, and had some very dubious friends.”

Neighbours in Aulnay-sous-Bois told journalists that the last time they saw her was 10 days ago. At this time she was already under police surveillance for suspected drug dealing, thought to be “feeding the radicalised, in arms and money”.

Further phone taps revealed her connection to the Islamic State commando teams that carried out the devastating attacks on Paris on Friday 13 November.


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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