Cherif Kouachi was known to French authorities as a recruiter, a middleman, a guy who had conflicted feelings about joining the fight alongside Islamist militants in Iraq. What appeared Wednesday was very different.
Kouachi and his older brother — the main suspects in the massacre at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo — moved with chilling calm and precision. Or as the Long War Journal described them: “Hardened and well-trained fighters who may have received instructions at a training facility overseas, or locally in France.”
If those suspicions are accurate, it would mark a sharp transformation for Kouachi, a 32-year-old Parisian described by authorities as a suspected gunman in the attack, along with his brother, Said. While there’s little mention of Said Kouachi in published reports, Cherif Kouachi has been on authorities’ radar for at least a decade and was once convicted of “criminal association in connection with a terrorist enterprise,” newspaper accounts said. That has raised questions among French media as to how a man known to law enforcement somehow escaped notice while allegedly planning a terrorist attack.
While answers to those questions remain unclear, reporters and authorities have begun to stitch together a troubling portrait of a man who years ago allegedly told other militants he wanted to attack France. According to Agence France-Presse, Kouachi was born in the 10th arrondissement in 1982 to Algerian parents. Later, he resettled in the 19th arrondissement, a community with a sizable Arab population on the outskirts of northeastern Paris. By the time Kouachi was in his early 20s, both of his parents were dead, his attorney, Vincent Ollivier, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2005.
At that time, the Iraq War raged thousands of miles away, and radical Islam simmered in the 19th arrondissement. Its skyline was crowded with the sort of high-rises the Associated Press described as “public housing slums that breed violence and crime.” Kouachi was listless and didn’t adhere strictly to many Islamic precepts. “He drank, smoked pot, slept with his girlfriend and delivered pizzas for a living,” the Tribune-Review paraphrased Ollivier as saying. In those years, he worked a series of dead-end jobs — as a pizza deliveryman, a supermarket clerk, a fishmonger — and spent a lot of time listening to rap music.
One day, he came across a drab, concrete mosque called Addawa, Kouachi would later explain to authorities. Inside that mosque was a janitor in his 20s named Farid Benyettou, a radical preacher given to lengthy sermons on the merits of jihad. “I taught,” Benyettou said in a sealed deposition reported by the New York Times, that “suicide attacks were legitimate under Islam as part of jihad.”
By all accounts, Kouachi was a prime target for Benyettou, who was later convicted of running a recruiting network that pumped French jihadists into Iraq to fight against U.S. troops. Two of his recruits had just died in Iraq. Both of them, according to an AP report, had profiles similar to Kouachi’s. They were unemployed. They drank beer. They listened to rap music. They smoked pot. “They grew more alienated in recent years,” AP reported, “surrounded by secular Western culture and by what many Muslims see as a subtle bigotry among the French against Arabs.”
“There’s no work here,” one told an uncle. “… Life is tough.”
Kouachi, then 22, confided in the young janitor-turned-preacher. “I think in Mr. Benyettou, he found someone who could tell him what to do, like an older brother,” attorney Ollivier told the Tribune-Review. Kouachi informed Benyettou he wanted to attack Jewish targets in France, but Benyettou told him to hold off, according to a 2008 Bloomberg News report. France wasn’t a “land of jihad,” Kouachi was told. Iraq was.
Eventually Kouachi, who had reportedly picked up the basics of handling a Kalashnikov assault rifle, planned for his trip to the Middle East. He was to travel with another young Arab Parisian who was “a bit crazy,” the man’s lawyer told the New York Times. “He wanted to go to the war in Iraq as an adventure, like you’d go on vacation.”
The plan was to meet a 13-year-old point man, also from their Paris neighborhood, at a Damascus airport. The point man would funnel them safely across the border and into Iraq. But in 2005, Kouachi’s plan hit a snare when police arrested Kouachi and his traveling companion as they were about to leave. Kouachi told authorities he had been having second thoughts about Iraq and was “relieved” when he was arrested. “My client was rather pleased to be arrested by police instead of seeing his project through,” attorney Ollivier said.
While other members of the recruiting network received lengthy prison sentences, Kouachi got off with a three-year sentence and was released in 2008. From there, he vanished from journalistic reports — only to suddenly reemerge on Wednesday, authorities said, to perhaps finally realize his aspirations of launching a terrorist attack in France.