Charlie Hebdo suspects followed familiar radicalisation path
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Just hours after gunmen stormed the offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, the cold-blooded professionalism of the attackers was evident to anyone watching video clips of the attack circulating on social media sites.
Heavily armed and clad in black vests, their faces entirely covered by balaclavas, the gunmen calmly carried out the attack, targeting their victims with precision, unhurriedly exiting the building before shooting a wounded policeman lying on the street. At one point, a gunman is spotted picking up what appears to be a shoe near the getaway car.
But hours after the attack, as French security services mounted a massive manhunt, the assailants appeared to make a calamitous slip, according to French security sources.
One of the gunmen left an identity card in the black Citroen getaway car, reported French daily Libération. The car was abandoned in the 19th arrondissement of the French capital, blocks away from the rue Nicolas Appert, home to the Charlie Hebdo offices in the 11th district.
The apparent incongruence between the professionalism on display during the attack and the amateurish slip-up in the aftermath may seem odd. But it’s exactly the kind of mistakes trained criminals can make under duress, and the sort of slip-up the police count on.
On the other hand, as Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist groups, warns, a false ID card could also have been placed to deliberately mislead investigators. “These attackers are professional. They can use something to mislead the police and mislead the press,” noted Nasr.
It’s still too early to determine just how well trained the Charlie Hebdo attackers were or where they did their training.
But a day after France’s worst terrorist attack in decades, details of the suspects are beginning to emerge.
French authorities have released photos of the two main suspects, identified as Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his 34-year-old brother, Said. A third man, Mourad Hamyd, 18, surrendered at a police station in eastern France after learning his name was linked to the attacks in the news and on social media, said Paris prosecutor spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre. She did not specify his relationship to the Kouachi brothers.
So far, there have been no claims of responsibility by major terrorist networks such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) group, although jihadist messages congratulating the gunmen have been posted online.
But at least one of the Kouachi brothers is well known to French security officials and the radicalisation pattern apparent from his criminal record is a familiar one in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.
‘He drinks, he smokes’
In March 2008, Cherif Kouachi appeared in a Paris court where a trial into a domestic jihadist network was underway.
Dressed in tracksuits and sneakers, Kouachi and six other defendants were charged with involvement in what was known as the Buttes Chaumont network, named after the northern Paris neighbourhood where the members were based.
The network was made up of petty criminals, mainly of Muslim origin, who were influenced by Islamic preachers and urged to train to join the jihad against US forces then in Iraq.
A report on the court proceedings in the leading French daily Le Monde at that time describes Kouachi as an athletically built 25-year-old with a square jaw and mid-length hair. Looking relaxed in court, Kouachi is reported to have told the judge, “I was a delinquent before. But after I got in shape, I thought I could not even be killed.”
Kouachi was arrested in January 2005, according to French daily, Libération, while attempting to travel to the Syrian capital of Damascus, from where we assume he was attempting to make his way across the Syrian-Iraq border to join fellow foreign jihadists battling US forces in Iraq.
Kouachi’s lawyer, Vincent Ollivier, is quoted as telling the court, “He drinks, smokes, he doesn’t have a beard. What interests him is football. He is an ideal target for Islamist preachers.”
The judge though wasn’t convinced. Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison, including an 18-month suspended sentence, for “conspiracy to prepare acts of terrorism”.
French news reports from that time described Kouachi, a pizza deliveryman, as being a one-time pot smoker who “even had a girlfriend before marriage”.
But the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – and especially the photographs emerging from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail of US troops taunting Muslim prisoners – rapidly changed that profile.
Orphaned brothers gravitate to local mosque
Born in Paris to parents of Algerian origin, Kouachi is believed to have lost both his parents and the orphaned Kouachi brothers were raised mostly in the northwestern French region of Brittany.
The boys returned to Paris as adults and in early 2003, Kouachi started attending the Adda’wa mosque in the Stalingrad area of northern Paris, according to court records.
In 2010, he was arrested again – but not charged – for allegedly participating in a failed plot to help Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, a former member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) escape from prison.
Belkacem was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for a 1995 Paris rail station bombing, which injured 30 people.
The GIA waged a bloody insurgency in Algeria in the 1990s before the group morphed into the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). In 2007, the GSPC announced that it was now al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
Reports on Yemen links emerge
While Kouachi did not manage to make his way to Syria back in 2005, it is not known as yet if he did manage to travel abroad for firearms training.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 on Thursday, Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based European Strategic and Intelligence Center, noted that the Charlie Hebdo attackers were “clearly fanatical, completely devoted to their bloody task and they were absolutely without any remorse. I think they were probably trained elsewhere, but an investigation will have to reveal these details.”
FRANCE 24's Nasr notes that unlike recent attacks in France, such as the 2012 Toulouse shootings, the assault on Charlie Hebdo does not appear to be a lone wolf attack. “This is a carefully coordinated attack,” said Nasr. “It seems like they got training to carry out this attack. It doesn’t mean that it’s in Syria or Iraq – you can train at any paintball facility in France or elsewhere.”
French media reports have quoted Charlie Hebdo staffers who witnessed the shootings as saying the attackers claimed “they were al Qaeda”. One witness, a Parisian who claimed to have been stopped by the gunmen, told the Financial Times that the attackers said they were from Yemen. That would point to AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) which is considered the most dangerous arm of al Qaeda.
While these statements are as yet unverified, they appear consistent with AQAP goals and its track record of being one of the most effective al Qaeda branches after the September 11, 2001, attacks to plot – if not necessarily succeed in carrying out – attacks on Western targets.