Alleged gunmen known to French police
WHEN Cherif Kouachi first came to the attention of the French authorities as a possible terrorist a decade ago, he was in his early 20s and, according to a testimony during a 2008 Paris trial, he had dreamed of attacking Jewish targets in France.
Under the influence of a radical Paris preacher, however, he decided that fighting American troops in Iraq presented a better outlet for his commitment to his cause.
On Wednesday, Kouachi, according to investigators, returned to his original plan of waging holy war in France. Along with his elder brother, Said, and a third French Muslim of North African descent, he was named as one of three men who were involved in an assault on a satirical newspaper in Paris that left at least 12 people dead.
Cherif and Said, aged 32 and 34 respectively, are suspected of being the masked gunmen armed with Kalashnikov rifles who entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and slaughtered members of its staff, as well as two police officers.
According to the authorities, the third and youngest suspect, Hamyd Mourad, 18, drove the getaway car. Mourad turned himself in late on Wednesday at a police station in Charleville-Mezieres in northern France.
Le Point, a leading French news magazine, said that both brothers were known to intelligence services, and that Mourad was unemployed. It said that the police had identified the suspects after one of them left his identification papers in the abandoned Citroen vehicle used in their escape after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
The massacre raised questions about how Cherif, so well-known to the police for so many years, and his brother had managed to conceal their intentions.
Part of the answer may be that they appear to have moved smoothly between normal immigrant society and an extremist militant underground. Born in the 10th Arrondissement, they came from secular backgrounds and initially drifted into petty delinquencies, not religious fanaticism.
Liberation, a French newspaper, described Cherif as an orphan whose parents were Algerian immigrants. It said that he was raised in foster care in Rennes, in western France, and trained as a fitness instructor before moving to Paris, where he moved in with his brother Said in the home of a convert to Islam. He held menial jobs, at times working as a pizza delivery man, shop assistant and fishmonger.
He was first arrested in 2005 in connection with a case centred on Farid Benyettou, 26, a janitor-turned- preacher who gave sermons calling for jihad in Iraq and justifying suicide bombings.
Among Benyettou's would-be recruits was Cherif, then 22, who was detained as he prepared to leave for Syria, the first leg of a trip he hoped would take him to Iraq.
Brought to trial in 2008, he was presented by his lawyer as a confused chameleon who, when not attending classes by Benyettou, smoked marijuana, listened to rap music and described himself as an "occasional Muslim". The Iraq recruitment group, known as the 19th Arrondissement network, sent at least a dozen Parisians to fight in Iraq, prosecutors asserted.
Cherif's interest in radical Islam, it was said at the 2008 trial, was rooted in his fury over the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly the mistreatment of Muslims held at Abu Ghraib prison. He was given a three-year sentence for involvement in a network that recruited young French Muslims to fight alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a United States airstrike in 2006.
Having already spent three years in pretrial detention, he was swiftly released.