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Jihadi Recruiters Find Success In French City Of Nice

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There was a minute of silence in Nice, France, today for the victims of the horrendous attack there. Police are questioning several people about the driver who plowed through a crowd in a large truck, leaving 84 dead. The attack was claimed by ISIS. But NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports authorities are still examining whether the driver, a Tunisian living in France, was radicalized.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The office of Entre Autres, or Between Others, is off a busy avenue in downtown Nice. The organization fights radicalization.

BENJAMIN ERBIBOU: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Benjamin Erbibou is one of the group's many counselors. He says they began seeing the radicalization phenomenon around 2009 with young people's extremist ideas. Today, the group works closely with police and the families of young people who are radicalizing. Erbibou says it's a long process. But radicalization can be stopped if it's caught early on.

ERBIBOU: That is the main thing - to make them remember that they can doubt. They can question what they have been told. They can think for themselves.

BEARDSLEY: Erbibou says one thing the radicalized all have in common is - they believe they are victims. And society is the enemy. He says the Nice truck driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was probably at this point of no return. Erbibou says debunking the notion that France is racist is central to the fight against radicalization.

ERBIBOU: For sure, the French state is not racist. And we hear that all the time. It's very, very dangerous to tell such a thing. This is the word we have to spread. They need to hear that.

BEARDSLEY: One hundred people have left Nice to join jihadists in Iraq and Syria, more than anywhere else in France. People here know their city, which lies right across the Mediterranean from North Africa, is a hotbed for radicals. Psychiatrist Brigitte Guy says one man is partly responsible, Omar Omsen. He's a Nice native who ran a jihadist recruiting ring here for 10 years. She says the charismatic Omsen left in 2013. But he wasn't alone.

BRIGITTE GUY: About 40 persons, young guys between 15 and 28, 29, decided to go to Iraq and Syria with him.

BEARDSLEY: She shows me one of Omsen's propaganda videos. Guy says in some Nice neighborhoods, he's seen as a kind of hero. Yasmina Touaibia is a Franco-Algerian counselor with this group. She says French children of North African immigrants who are susceptible to radical propaganda often have identity issues.

YASMINA TOUAIBIA: (Through interpreter) They've grown up in a kind of cultural no man's land. They don't quite feel French. But they can't say they're North African either. And they feel rejected by both sides.

BEARDSLEY: Touaibia says in a society where social togetherness is breaking down, ISIS knows these youngsters are ripe for the picking. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Nice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.