KOTLI QAZI, Pakistan (AP) – Ali Hassan was only 15 when he left Pakistan to be smuggled into Europe, following the path of his older brother and many other young men from his dreaming home country of a better life.
Almost three years later, Hassan is now in a Paris prison after allegedly attacking and seriously injuring two people with a meat cleaver. Before the September 25 attack, he proclaimed in a video that he was seeking revenge after the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published caricatures of the prophet of Islam Muhammad.
Little is known about Hassan’s time in France. There was confusion about his age, but the Associated Press obtained his official ID documents in Pakistan which confirmed he was currently 18.
French authorities are investigating the September 25 stabbing as an Islamic extremist attack. The stabbing echoed a January 2015 attack on the newspaper that killed 12 of its staff by militants claiming they were acting on behalf of al-Qaida.
So far, there is no indication that Hassan was linked to a terrorist group. Instead, the teenager’s anger – far from home in a world very different from anything he has known – may have roots in Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Hassan’s journey began in his native village of Kotli Qazi, in the heart of a rural area in the province of Punjab. The small village sits on a narrow, rutted dirt road that crosses vast agricultural fields.
The little cement houses are crowded together, their walls filled with patties of dung cooking under the scorching midday sun. At sunset, they will be peeled off the walls and used to fuel the evening fires.
Many young men, including childhood friends of Hassan, said they dreamed of reaching Europe to find prosperity – at least 18 young people from the village have emigrated abroad in recent years. At the same time, they called Hassan a hero for leading the attack.
In the neighborhood where Kotli Qazi is located, an extremist political party, Tehreek-e Labbaik, wields powerful influence – almost its only agenda to uphold blasphemy laws, which call for the death penalty against those who offend it. Islam. Just months after Hassan arrived in France, protesters backed by the Labbaik party gathered and blocked roads in the district and other parts of Pakistan in November 2018, enraged as a young Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was released from death row where she faced execution for blasphemy.
“He went to France because compared to other countries, like Saudi Arabia, winning there is much better,” childhood friend Mohammad Ikram said of Hassan. “The young people of our region want to live in Europe.”
But, he added, “all of our friends said that if they were in his place, they would have done the same if they had seen anything blasphemous against the Prophet.”
Ali’s longtime neighbor Amina, 80, remembered Hassan as a good boy.
“He never went looking for mischief like some of those other boys. No, he just wanted to study, ”she said. Sitting on a traditional rope-woven bed in a dusty enclosure, she shared with several members of her family, she said, “Religiously he did the right thing. You might not agree, but he did the right thing.
Neighbors and traders said powerful Pakistani security agencies told them not to say anything about Hassan or the attack on Paris. Many expressed concern about the image their small village was getting.
“Please do not hurt the dignity of our village, do not take away our dignity,” pleaded a trader, who did not want to give his name for fear of the plainclothes police who were standing nearby.
Hassan’s father, Arshad Mahmoud, refused to speak to reporters who knocked on the door of his house. Pakistani police and intelligence warned him not to speak publicly after openly defending his son’s actions.
Shuja Nawaz, Washington-based author, political and security analyst and member of the Atlantic Council, said the influx of young migrants from countries like Pakistan into Europe brings two factors to conflict.
“First, the conditions in the countries of origin, like Pakistan, which are increasingly Islamized and anti-Western under the influence of the mullahs and populist governments, as their education systems collapse,” a- he declared. “Second, in Western countries, where migrants find themselves legally or illegally, there is a ghettoization of Muslim immigrants who turn to religion as a defense mechanism and rallying point.
Official identity documents seen by the PA confirm Hassan’s date of birth on August 10, 2002, the second youngest of nine siblings.
An older brother, Bilal, now 32 and apparently living in Italy, was the first of the siblings to visit Europe, neighbors and police officials said. Hassan’s younger brother Ali Murtaza, now 16, also emigrated to France and was arrested along with Hassan, but was later released.
Ikram, Hassan’s friend, said that the “illegal” path to Europe can be very dangerous but from his village, the majority of those who leave are, like Hassan, between 15 and 16 years old because minors do not will often not be evicted.
Hassan started the trip in early 2018, crossing Iran, Turkey and Italy to finally reach France in August 2018. He was registered as an unaccompanied minor and was initially housed in the Paris suburb of Cergy, where he received the aid granted to minors.
At one point, he moved to Pantin, a working-class suburb with a large immigrant population, including North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans and Pakistanis. He lived in an apartment with several other Pakistanis in a filthy brick building above a hooka bar and an auto parts store.
“They were calm, they had their lives, left in the morning at work,” said Zyed Zaied, who runs the auto shop. He said he did not know where Hassan worked, but Pakistanis often found work in restaurants.
It was in Pantin that Hassan lived when, on September 1, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons of Muhammad. The newspaper said it was a demonstration of press freedom on the eve of the start of the first trial after the January 2015 attacks.
On September 25, Hassan had an appointment at the regional administration of Val d’Oise to review his residence situation. Hassan had just turned 18, which means he was no longer a minor and would have lost his application for residence in France unless he could apply for asylum.
Instead, Hassan went to what he believed to be the Charlie Hebdo offices, unaware that they had moved. With a cleaver he attacked two people who, it turned out, worked for a documentary film company, seriously injuring them. He was caught shortly after, blood stains on his forehead, on the steps of the Opera Bastille.
Relatives told investigators that in recent weeks Hassan had watched videos of Tahreek-e Labbaik party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi denouncing the publication of the cartoons, French prosecutors said.
In a video posted to social media before the stabbing, Hassan cried and said he was inspired by the party.
“If I sound emotional then there is a reason for this and let me share it with you. Here in France, caricatures of the Prophet have been drawn, and I will resist them today.
Associated Press editors Asim Tanvir in Multan, Pakistan and Elaine Ganley and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.