Yassine was one of the most popular teaching assistants at his primary school in Strasbourg. What is known in the French school system as an 'animateur', Yassine supervised the kids during their lunchbreak and in after-school activities. 'Nice,' 'sociable' and 'attentive' have been some of the words used by parents this week to describe the 37-year-old. Yassine had worked part-time at the school for a decade before he was taken on permanently in 2014 because of his popularity with the kids.
Last weekend Yassine B [his surname hasn't been disclosed] was arrested by the French security services after an eight-month surveillance operation. When police raided his flat they allegedly discovered a letter of allegiance to Islamic State and two handguns. It has subsequently been claimed in the French media that Yassine spent the 2015 summer holidays in Syria, planning with the other members of the terrorist cell a series of simultaneous attacks in Paris on December 1. Among the intended targets, reported French media on Thursday, were the Champs-Elysées Christmas market, tourist bars and the headquarters of the DGSI [direction générale de la Sécurité intérieure], an intelligence service.
Yassine's arrest stunned staff and parents at the school. One mother spoke of her 'incomprehension' that the smiling Yassine, rarely seen out of his designer trainers, was in the advanced stages of launching an Islamic attack against his own people. Another bewildered parent reflected that we 'never know what goes on in someone's head'. Yassine's family, however, deny he's a terrorist, telling reporters the investigators were 'on a false trail', adding: 'How do you want to be a terrorist if you drink alcohol [and] smoke hash...he's anti-Daesh.' At a press conference Mathieu Cahn, deputy mayor of Strasbourg, admitted the school and the education authority were 'shaken' at the arrest. Asked if there had been any warning signs about Yassine he replied in the negative.
The arrest of the terrorist cell, and particularly the revelation that one of the five men was, on the surface, fully integrated into French society, is more political capital for Marine Le Pen's National Front ahead of next year's presidential election. She has long accused France's political establishment of negligence and naïvety in combating Islamic extremism.
First there's the question of how Yassine was able to make a return trip to Syria in 2015 undetected, undertaking the same journey with the same ease as the terrorists who carried out the series of deadly assaults in Paris twelve months ago. Then there's the matter of his status. The left in France have long argued that the root causes of Islamic extremism are unemployment and alienation, making impressionable young men susceptible to radicalisation, as was the case with Mohamed Bouhlel, the misfit responsible for killing 86 people in Nice on Bastille Day.
But Yassine - like Mohammad Sidique Khan, the mastermind of London's 7/7 bombings - had a good job and was a respected figure within the community. He wasn't on the margin of society; he was deep inside, working with young kids in a role he appeared to relish. One of the other targets on the cell's hit-list was Disneyland Paris.
Following news of the cell's arrest a senior French counterterrorism official told CNN that there are now more than 15,000 Islamic extremists on their radar 'and one growing concern was how quickly radicalisation was taking place'. It took Bouhlel two months to become a murderous extremist but Yassine appears to belong to a well-embedded sleeper cell as all but one were unknown to police before the surveillance operation began. The Islamists' dismay at the cell's discovery will be tempered by the revelations about Yassine, and the fear they'll strike into the French; there are 15,000 extremists on the radar but how many are under it?
The US State Department has this week issued a warning to Americans in Europe, advising them to exercise extreme caution at 'holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets' as it had 'credible information' that Islamic State was planning attacks. France is more than ever the number one target, and on Wednesday Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that twelve attacks have been foiled in the last four months. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government and the security services is immense, and the news of an attack on a retirement home for Catholic missionaries in Montpellier on Thursday night has heightened tensions, despite the fact that for the moment it's not known who perpetrated the assault that left one woman dead.
Campaigning for the presidential election is now in full swing and the Islamists want nothing more than a National Front victory in the hope it will cleave the country in two. 'We're on the brink of a civil war,' warned Patrick Calvar, head of the DGSI when he addressed a parliamentary enquiry into the massacre of November 2015. In his opinion 'one or two more attacks and it will happen,' with far-right groups and Islamists fighting each other in the streets. Calvar addressed the enquiry in May, before the summer of Islamist savagery that saw a police commander and his wife knifed to death in front of their three-year-old son, the attack in Nice and the butchering of an 84-year-old priest on the steps of his altar.
His warning hasn't yet come to pass, despite the bloody violence and the ideological provocation of the skilfully engineered burkini furore, but who knows what might happen if France suffers more bloody attacks this winter. In such a climate it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Marine Le Pen would win the first round of the presidential election with such a landslide that the second round manoeuvring of which we all talk becomes superfluous.