PARIS — As investigators try to piece together the story behind the terror that struck France this week, they will be pulling up files that date back a decade or more.
A great deal is still unknown about the now-infamous—and now dead—Kouachi brothers, Chérif and Saïd, who burst into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning and slaughtered 12 people. And only sketchy information exists about their relationship with Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman on Thursday and took hostages at a kosher grocery in Paris on Friday before he, too, was killed by police.
What the terrorist corpses leave behind are riddles that they will never answer. But it is clear that these men never were “lone wolves.” For years they had been deeply involved in overlapping networks of jihadists that included some of the most notorious names in the annals of terror.
Sources in Washington firmly believe that in 2011 the older brother, Saïd, received some degree of training in Yemen and may have met with the late terrorist preacher and recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who eventually was killed by an American drone. Paris’s public prosecutor, meanwhile, told reporters Friday evening that Chérif had a stay in Yemen in 2011 and that he had among his entourage jihadists known to have trained in Yemen who are now in Yemen and Syria.
But the brothers’ trips to Yemen would have been at least three years ago. All three of the shooters—the Kouachis and Coulibaly—were well known to French police. How did they slip under the radar? That the attacks this week were al Qaeda inspired seems beyond question. But how long were the brothers plotting? Or were they part of a sleeper cell? Did Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula activate them as a way of showing up its rival for the mantle of terrorist leadership, the so-called Islamic State? With the suspects dead, it will be hard, if not impossible, to answer such questions.
Relatives, schoolmates, spouses and in-laws all become important in such an investigation, and several have been detained for questioning. Chérif Kouachi’s wife, for instance, was taken into custody shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and admitted that her husband was close to Amedy Coulibaly. For her part, she seems to have been quite close to Coulibaly's partner, Hayat Boumedienne, who is now the most wanted fugitive in France. Chérif’s wife’s phone records showed her calling Boumeddiene more than 500 times in 2014.
So the job begins with a reconstruction of their records and their lives, and much of the most revealing material emerges from the activities 10 years ago of a group that trained for war, after a fashion, in the Parisian park called Buttes-Chaumont: 100 or so acres of greenery dominated by a fanciful man-made mountain topped by a faux Greek temple. There was an artificial waterfall and a fake grotto bristling with stalactites. The whole landscape, created in the 1800s, was meant to evoke a romantic vista in some mystical land. There was also, in 2005, a lot of graffiti.
The network that developed there, and that first attracted Chérif Kouachi in 2004, was like a vocational school for terrorists, sending boys from eastern Paris to the battlefields of Iraq so they could fight their first holy war against the Americans. Many were little more than kids, hardly old enough to take much pride in whatever beards they could manage, but they pioneered the jihad underground that now looms as a growing threat to the security of Europe and, very possibly, the United States.
By 2005, three of the group’s members had been killed in Baghdad and Falluja, and six were in prisons from Paris to Damascus to Abu Ghraib after failing to make it into combat.
All grew up in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, a district of exceptional ethnic diversity and dilapidated social housing set between busy rail yards and the placid Bassin de la Villette in the northeastern corner of the city. Kosher groceries and halal meat shops abound, the quartier being home to Paris’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities. In those days, ubiquitous storefront boutiques offered indoor phone booths and cut-rate calls home to Sub-Saharan Africa. Dozens of social housing project towers rose high out of concrete, some with police outposts purpose-built into their ground floors. Unemployment was as high as 60 percent, according to a municipal official. Kids attended poor schools, then loitered, leaning against buildings or, as the French say, “holding up walls.”
“We’re all Molotov cocktails, we’re all time bombs,” said Bakary Sakho, who ran a program to help young people in the neighborhood at the time.
It was hardly surprising, then, that some of the families of the kids who embraced jihad were at first relieved when their sons found religion, glad they’d found some structure going to mosque and staying off the streets, happy they’d gotten at least at first a little more respectful, a little more serious, with a little more direction.
Two of the three who were killed fighting as part of the insurgency in Iraq were only 19. Some of the French jihadists were converts, or, like Chérif Kouachi, had come late to religion, only beginning to practice Islam in their teens or early twenties. Their paths to jihad seemed more opportunistic than thought-through, given that some didn’t even speak enough Arabic to fit in once they got to the Middle East’s battlefields. Most still lived with their parents, some asking permission to go study in Syria, leaving out the part about Syria being their springboard to the Iraqi insurgency in those days.
Chérif Kouachi, like his older brother Saïd, had been raised in foster homes. He was adrift, delivering pizzas, smoking hashish. A lawyer who represented him later on remembers him as an “apprentice loser” and “a clueless kid.” But when he started hanging out with a janitor-turned-imam, Farid Benyettou, who was the organizer of the Buttes-Chaumont group, he found purpose. And that purpose was jihad.
Benyettou was no older than some of his disciples, but as far as the boys of the Buttes knew, he was very well versed in the Qur’an. He also had street cred because his older sister’s husband was a member of one of Algeria’s most ruthless and dangerous jihadi organizations, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which eventually joined the ranks of al Qaeda affiliates.
Kouachi said he’d like to kill Jews, but Benyettou persuaded him, as he persuaded the others, that it was wiser to go kill Americans and to die a martyr in Iraq. They should join the ranks of fighters rallying to a leader named Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was gaining fame with repeated suicide bombings and the beheadings of Western hostages.
Bakary Sakho knew some of the dead and jailed young jihadists. As he told us in 2005, one was known as “Little Chekou”—he was in U.S. custody in southern Iraq, arrested during fighting in Falluja. Peter Cherif, a neighborhood kid whose family was from the Antilles, converted to Islam himself. At first he became more respectful of his mother, and she approved. He had more structure in his life. “That’s why his mother accepted it,” said Sakho. “But later it took on such an intensity that his mother was completely overwhelmed.” Peter’s character changed. He called his mother a miscreant; he said she didn’t understand anything. He went to Iraq. And Peter, too, was collected by U.S. forces in Falluja.
Peter Cherif’s friend since their days together at junior high school was Thamer Bouchnak. Two other young men who’d gone to the same school died in Iraq. One of them, Abdelhalim Badjoudj, was alleged to have killed himself in a suicide bombing.
Bouchnak wanted to follow, and joined up with none other than Chérif Kouachi. They were all set to fly to Damascus, then make their way overland to the Iraqi battlefield. Kouachi later said he was afraid, but he believed they would die as martyrs, and enter Paradise. Benyettou had told them so. In any event, Thamer and Kouachi never made it to Syria, Iraq, or Paradise. French authorities arrested them before they even got on the plane.
It’s not as if, 10 years ago, the threat posed by these young men was unrecognized. “Those who aren’t dead and who come back will be the future chiefs of al Qaeda or Zarqawi in Europe,” French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard said at the time. But then, as now, there was no clear way to end it.
In Kouachi’s case, the court sent him to prison from January 2005 to October 2006, and there he began a new stage in his radicalization in the company of a new mentor, Djamel Beghal, who had plotted an attack on the U.S. embassy in Paris in 2001. After Kouachi got out, he was accused of joining a plot to free one of the most notorious terrorists held in France, Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem, who is serving a life sentence for his role organizing the bombing of a commuter train in central Paris in 1995.
Prosecutors alleged that Beghal had put the escape plot together, and that one of the other people involved, besides Kouachi, was Amedy Coulibaly. The contacts were made for the cell that brought terror to France this week.