PARIS — Those who have met him say he is alternately charming and chilling. He is the man who stoked the friendship between two of last month’s Paris attackers — and he has been sitting in a French prison for years.
Djamel Beghal, said to be one of al-Qaeda’s top recruiters in Europe, tutored the future gunmen about the finer points of radical Islamic practice. He cajoled them to support Palestinian orphans who he said would grow up to be “tomorrow’s fighters.” And he was convicted of leading them in a failed attempt to spring an Algerian terrorism convict from prison.
Now, one month after the bloody assault that claimed 17 victims in Paris and struck fear in the heart of Europe, Beghal is under close watch by authorities as they seek to establish his possible role in the attacks.
What investigators discover might be especially critical, counterterrorism officials say, because of emerging signs that elements of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, once fierce rivals, may have collaborated in the attacks.
That would be a worrisome development in the fight against global terrorism, since until now, the two groups have had bases of support in different regions, with different goals. The Islamic State has mostly focused on its own fight for territory within Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda has clashed with it.
Beghal has been behind bars for most of the past 14 years on terrorism-related charges. His latest stint began in 2010, well before the development of the Islamic State, which emerged as a fighting group in the chaos of Syria’s civil war and only in late 2013 truly became a fearsome power.
So the links between Beghal, the Paris plotters and the Islamic State may be of critical importance in understanding the evolving threat facing Western nations, intelligence officials say. Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed four people at a Paris kosher supermarket, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State in videotaped remarks hours before his death.
Even though Coulibaly’s final affiliation was with the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-linked Beghal clearly sparked his radicalization, investigators say.
“He’s someone who touched me in a human way,” Coulibaly told police investigators in 2010, according to a transcript of an interrogation.
Through his attorney, Beghal has denied any connection to the Paris attacks.
“He’s a very, very dangerous man,” said Jean-Louis Bruguière, a former counterterrorism investigator who led the inquiry that sent Beghal to prison in 2001. He said that Beghal had clearly radicalized the two men who met him in prison, but he added that it was difficult for intelligence services to keep up with the shifting patterns of alliances that come together to fuel attacks.
“It’s a mutating and evolving phenomenon as we continue the fight,” he said.
Beghal, 49, was born in a small town in Algeria and moved to France when he was 21, eventually acquiring citizenship and starting a family with a French woman. He sold clothing and worked in a food factory. In 1997, he moved briefly with his family to Britain, where he attended the mosque run by the radical Muslim preacher known as Abu Qatada.
Authorities have accused Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, of being a senior al-Qaeda figure who had close ties to Osama bin Laden. At the British mosque, Beghal appears to have become radicalized, authorities say, and he moved to Afghanistan in 2000. He was arrested the following year in connection with a plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris and went sent to prison for a 10-year sentence. He has long maintained his innocence and says he was tortured during the investigation.
In 2005, he met Coulibaly and another future Paris attacker, Chérif Kouachi, in the Fleury-Merogis prison south of Paris, notorious for its poor conditions.
Police later asked Coulibaly whether he knew any “veterans of jihad.”
“Yes, I know one, Djamel Beghal,” Coulibaly responded.
After the men were released, they stayed in close touch. Coulibaly often asked for advice, as did his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, who is now in Syria, officials say.
Transcripts of intercepted phone calls show the friendly relations among the three men, as Beghal teased Kouachi about his spaghetti-cooking skills and joked that Coulibaly would have to be “masochistic to want to hang out with Chérif [Kouachi] on a Friday night.”
Coulibaly asked Beghal whether there were any circumstances in which it was religiously acceptable to die with debt, hinting without saying explicitly that he was referring to martyrdom.
“It’s God who will pay back the debt,” Beghal replied.
He pushed Coulibaly to donate money to an organization for Palestinian orphans run by “a veteran who fought in Afghanistan. He’s done quite a bit of jihad and all that comes with it, and prison, too.”
“Children from Palestine are tomorrow’s fighters, my friend. They’re the ones standing up to the Jews,” Beghal said.
In the cramped hotel chambers in southern France where Beghal was living in 2010 on supervised release from prison, before being taken back into custody, police found a clipping about rocket-propelled grenades, maps of Afghanistan and Pakistan, printouts about suicide attacks, and an audio tape of songs with titles including “I, Terrorist,” “Blow Them Up,” “No Solution Except Arms” and “Oh You, Martyr.”
“Those are songs,” Beghal told police, when asked about them.
In documents confiscated from his computer, he maintained that he had no connection to terrorism. But he complained bitterly about the Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram prisons, which he said were markers of the “extermination of peoples by ‘those who are civilized.’ ” He complained also about the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis and the massacres of Bosnian Muslims in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
“This all-out anti-terrorist war . . . has only darkened the global landscape,” he wrote.
The fierce convictions visible in his writings make clear his potential power over recruits.
“He had a real reach to potential terrorists all over Europe, especially in France,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a Paris-based terrorism expert. “These networks rely highly on mentoring.”
Counterterrorism officials continue to try to understand the connections between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the attacks. The extent to which the terrorist networks were involved in the planning of the attacks remains unclear. Some experts say the friendship between Coulibaly and Kouachi was more important for the coordination of the attacks than any faraway force.
But questions were raised by an unusual apparent cross-pollination between the two groups. A day before Coulibaly attacked the grocery store, intelligence officials say, his wife entered Syrian territory held by the Islamic State — accompanied by Mehdi Belhoucine, the younger brother of a man who has recorded propaganda films released by an al-Qaeda media outlet. Officials believe Belhoucine was part of a logistics network with ties to al-Qaeda. Coulibaly also obtained weapons for the attack from suppliers with al-Qaeda connections, counterterrorism officials say.
And officials believe at least one of the two Kouachi brothers who killed 12 people at a satirical newsweekly’s offices trained in Yemen, the home of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“The Paris attacks and also recent operations in Belgium do raise the question about a possible change in the strategies of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State when it comes to global operations,” said a European counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive investigation details.
“It could be that Paris was the beginning of a new cooperation between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” the official said.
Counterterrorism experts are still trying to understand what the Islamic State does next as it broadens its aspirations beyond the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq.
“The Islamic State considers bin Laden as a historical figure and role model. So it could be, indeed, that we see a new common strategy when it comes to larger operations,” despite previous clashes between the two groups, said Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, deputy director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. “Fundamentally right now, the big unknown is how it is going to act in the next phase and expand or act more transnationally.”
Cléophée Demoustier and Anna Polonyi contributed to this report.