Charlie Hebdo attackers Said and Cherif Kouachi were well known jihadist wannabes who not only gave press interviews during their decade-plus of extremist activity—but also served jail time for terrorism-related activity. And yet they still slipped by French authorities.
How? And could jihadists like the Kouachi brothers get by U.S. authorities?
In the face of rogue jihadists living in the West and urged to attack their homeland, the threat “is the new normal,” one U.S. government official explained to The Daily Beast.
Eliminating the threat is impossible, American officials told The Daily Beast. There are thousands more jihadists living in the West than security forces to keep an eye on them. And with the war in Syria raging, there is the potential for that to grow as fighters return from the front lines, potentially radicalized. That the U.S. and its allies don’t punish or investigate the same way leads to wide variations in how suspects are watched, arrested and even sentenced. And even if someone is spotted, if they remain dormant for long periods of time, that silence can be confused with someone leaving the movement, rather than plotting an attack.
“Until there is a specific credible threat, we cannot put the American public in a tail spin of panic," the official said. "The trick is finding a middle ground where life, commerce and civil liberties can happen while still providing the necessary protection.”
U.S. law enforcement authorities now are seeking details from the French about what that government knew about the brothers before Wednesday’s deadly attack on the satirical magazine. For investigators, the big unanswered questions now center on what the two brothers were doing between the time of Said Kouachi’s 2011 travel to Yemen, supposedly for militant training, and the day of the Charlie Hedbo attack.
While in Yemen, Said Kouachi is believed to have met with Anwar al-Awlaki, then the top American jihadist for al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, The al Qaeda cleric was a senior recruiter trying to convince would-be jihadis to return to their home countries and launch attacks. Did al Awlaki somehow set a Paris attack plan in motion? Did the brothers back off or have to regroup after al Awlaki was killed in an apparent U.S. drone strike in September 2011? How long had they been plotting the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and did they receive any instructions, weapons or financing from Al Qaeda higher-ups? Notably, AQAP carried out a car bomb outside a police academy in Yemen the same day of the attack in France that killed at least 30. Was that purposely timed to the Paris attack?
France’s BFMTV journalists reportedly interviewed Cherif Kouachi in a phone call during his stand off with police Friday, during which he claimed he attack was funded by AQAP. He also claimed that he too traveled to Yemen, not just his brother, saying he met with al Awlaki.
Later Friday, AQAP reportedly claimed they directed the attack though U.S. officials said Friday afternoon they could not independently confirm it.
“The leadership of AQAP directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully,” an AQAP statement provided to the AP read. It was a result of “the consequences of the persistence in the blasphemy against Muslim sanctities.”
In an unusual move by AQAP, the group did not claim any role until two days after the attacks, raising suspicions about whether the group really was directly involved or merely inspired the attackers.
Either way, with the brothers now dead after a Friday shootout, it may be harder to find out what really motivated the attacks. For whatever reason, the two men, who were clearly known to both U.S. and French authorities, apparently sent up no red flags as to what they were plotting.
Friday marked the third day in a row that France endured murder on its streets, making it the deadliest week for the country in decades. On Wednesday, a female police officer was gunned down following a rifle attack in southern Paris. On Friday, four civilians were killed by what is believed to be the same shooters of the police officer took customers at a kosher supermarket hostage on the outskirts of Paris. One of the two attackers, Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, remained on the loose as of Saturday morning; her accomplice Amedy Coulibaly was killed by police at the market. In an interview with journalists, Coulibaly said he knew the Kouachi brothers.
Current and former U.S. officials also said that the United States was aware of the potential danger of foreign fighters recruited and trained by AQAP. In recent months, senior intelligence officials said that they were particularly concerned about the group’s attempts to smuggle sophisticated explosives on to commercial airliners. They’d also concluded that AQAP’s chief bombmaker, Ibrahim al Asiri, had survived U.S. attempts to kill him and was presumed to be training others in how to make weapons that could get past airport luggage screening systems.
But the potential threat of so-called “lone wolf” or “self-radicalizing” jihadists seems to have received less specific attention. The threat wasn’t unknown or not considered, current and former officials said. But over the past few years, it has been AQAP’s facility with bombs that has gotten the most attention from intelligence and security agencies.
All the while, AQAP sough to inspire attacks on the West. The Kouachi brothers were long named on the U.S. no-fly list. Midway through his jihadist life, in 2010, French authorities arrested Cherif Kouachi as part of a plot to free two well-known French-Algerian jihadists from prison. And the brothers were both suspected to traveling to Syria and fighting alongside jihadists.
U.S. officials conceded that despite all those suspicious acts, there remain seemingly insurmountable challenges that confront combating home grown terrorism. There are reportedly nearly 50,000 names on the U.S. no fly list, and there is simply not enough law enforcement to keep constant eyes on them. And the list can always grow, particularly as long as the Syrian war keeps drawing international fighters. Since 2011, there were as many as 15,000 foreign fighters, according to a United Nations report.
According to American estimates, there have been an estimated 150 Americans who have fought overseas or sought to do so since 9/11. In May, U.S. government officials admitted to The Daily Beast that they had lost track of some of those returning radicals, despite the extensive surveillance network that American intelligence agencies have set up to monitor them.
In many ways, the most potent weapon at al Qaeda’s disposal is the Internet where many wannabe jihadists are first introduced to groups and invited to join. But as Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorist expert at RAND concluded in a 2011 report, access to extremist groups doesn’t always lead to attacks.
“Al Qaeda has not yet managed to inspire many of its online followers to action. In the United States, its virtual army, with a few exceptions, has remained virtual,” Jenkins concluded.
There has been a durability in jihadist movements in France that can beguile investigators. The Kouachi brothers had been active for a decade. Mohammed Merah, who carried out the 2012 attacks in the French cities of Toulouse and Montauban, reportedly was first linked to jihadist movements in 2006.
When jihadists lay low for a long period of time, as Kouachi may have, it can give the false impression that they have left the movement, prompting law enforcement to dedicate their limited resources to more immediate threats. That is, they drop on the priority list even as no one knows for sure whether a jihadist has reformed or is waiting.
There is no international agreement on how suspected jihadists should be sentenced. For example, in 2005, French authorities sentenced Cherif Kouachi to three years in prison for his role in recruiting French fighters to travel to Iraq. He only served 18 months. He likely would have received a longer sentence for the same crime in the United States but how long would have been enough remains unclear.
“How long do you sentence someone for being an idiot? Would a five year sentence made a difference?” one government official posited to the Daily Beast.