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KAIROUAN, Tunisia — As authorities investigate the massacre on a Tunisian beach, news clues have emerged from the town where the young gunmen attended university.
Students have described how Seifeddine Rezgui, who killed 38 people on the beach of Sousse on June 26, may have become radicalized in one of Islam’s holiest cities — Kairouan.
It was in this history city, famous for its 7th century mosque, that Rezgui lived for three years and studied engineering.
At his student apartment on a small, dusty alley, neighbors said Rezgui seemed normal.
“He dressed normally, not like an extremist,” one neighbor told NBC News. “He didn’t have a beard. He had a girlfriend and friends who drank alcohol.”
That view was echoed the killer’s home town of Gaafour, a small farming community 100 miles from the modern resort town of Sousse where the massacre took place.
There he was remembered as a fan of break-dance, rap music and of Tunisia’s soccer league champions, Club Africa. During break from his studies, he returned to work part time in a small café serving coffee and cigarettes.
"He didn’t show any signs of extremism or anything. He never talked about religion," a friend, Mohammed, told Reuters. “It's a shock.”
But fellow students in Kairouan, a U.N. World Heritage Site described as one of the spiritual capitals of Islam, paint a different picture. “He was a good student at first,” said a student representative who identified himself only as Najib.
He told NBC News that the gunman changed after joining an extremist student group. “He wouldn’t listen to other viewpoints. He threatened a female professor … two of his closest friends traveled to Syria to fight,” Najib said.
Another student representative, Ameni Sassi, 24, said Rezgui was part of an armed mob that threatened her and other students at a rally in in March 2014. She said he was one of a group trying to bar her and other members of her student union from entering the university.
“He was carrying weapons and the other students with him had weapons: sticks and nightsticks and swords,” she recalled.
Investigators said Rezgui snuck across the border into war-torn Libya in January, and attended a militant training camp alongside two men who carried out the attack at the Bardo museum in Tunis in March.
They have arrested eight people they say are “directly linked” to the shooting in Sousse but are still looking for the two — believed to be friends of Rezguis — who trained in Libya with him.
More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight in Iraq, Syria and Libya and the country is by far the biggest source of foreign fighters in the region.
One Islamic jihadist in Tunisia, who did not want to be identified, told NBC News the younger generation of jihadists is “fascinated by ISIS.”
The 41-year-old said they are more extreme and violent than his generation. “They consider us moderate ... they are unpredictable,” he said. “Suicide bombers … they can’t be controlled. [Rezgui] had a plan ... he showed no one.”