WATCH ABOVE: Two brothers who evaded police in France for almost two days were on the radar of security officials. Vassy Kapelos takes a look at their connections to jihadism.
PARIS – Two suspects who managed to evade police for almost two days after the horrific Paris shooting spree that left twelve people dead, including eight journalists who worked for satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were killed after police stormed the printing house where the suspects were holed up on Friday.
The two brothers quickly became the most wanted men in France following Wednesday’s attack: Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34, were the targets of a mammoth manhunt. Police swarmed a gas station in the northern Aisne region where the two brothers were reportedly spotted early Thursday morning; helicopters hovered above the site. A massive operation unfolded Friday in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, northeast of Paris, as helicopters and hundreds of security forces backed by ambulances streamed to the building where the brothers were cornered.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Said Kouachi, the older brother, received terrorist training from al- Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate for a couple of months in 2011, with the idea of him returning home to mount an attack. Many foreign students studying Arabic in Yemen were suspected of linking up with militants and were later deported. One Yemeni official said Kouachi was likely among a group of foreigners deported from Yemen in 2012.
French authorities knew Kouachi travelled to Yemen, but it’s not clear whether they knew what he did there, according to an intelligence assessment described to The Associated Press. Still, French authorities placed both Kouachi brothers under close surveillance when he returned.
U.S. officials believe the brothers led a normal life for long enough that the French began to view them as less of a threat and reduced the surveillance.
The younger Kouachi, a former pizza deliveryman, had been sentenced to 18 months of prison in 2008 after trying to leave France to join Muslim fighters battling in Iraq.
A United States intelligence official told the Associated Press on Thursday the brothers were in the U.S. database of suspected terrorists, and had been on an American no-fly list for years.
Associated Press reporters who covered the trial, which exposed a recruiting pipeline for Islamic holy war in a rough multi-ethnic and working-class neighbourhood of northeastern Paris, recalled a skinny young defendant who appeared very nervous in court.
Cherif Kouachi’s lawyer said at the time his client had gotten in over his head with the wrong crowd.
During the trial, Kouachi was said to have undergone only minimal training for combat, going jogging in a Paris park to shape up and learning how a Kalashnikov automatic rifle works by studying a sketch. He was described at the time as a reluctant holy warrior, relieved to have been stopped by French counterespionage officials from taking a Syria-bound flight that was ultimately supposed to lead him into the battlefields of Iraq.
France has the single largest number of people who have left to fight in Syria, said Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. The country has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and a “sizable portion” is fairly marginalized in French society, added Dawson in a Wednesday interview with Global News.
“So unlike the Muslim populations in Canada and the United States that are pretty well-integrated and assimilated, the French Muslim population is pretty ghettoized, and they are economically not in good shape,” he said.
“You have a really substantial portion of young Muslim men who have not very good prospects in life. So we do have prime conditions for recruitment to radical causes.”
But imprisonment changed his former client, attorney Vincent Ollivier told Le Parisien newspaper in a story published Thursday. Cherif Kouachi became closed off and unresponsive and started growing a beard, the lawyer said, adding the time in prison may have turned his client into a ticking time bomb.
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However, a French television documentary that portrayed Kouachi’s abortive attempt to fight in Iraq suggested his radicalization may have occurred well before he was behind bars. Many French Muslims were infuriated by the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the program said, and by the negative consequences for Iraqis, ranging from the death of civilians to the abuse of detainees by American captors.
Footage included in the 2005 documentary, part of a prestigious French public television series entitled Evidence for the Prosecution, showed Kouachi in 2004, when, according to the narrator, the young man in a black T-shirt with extremely close-cropped hair and a chunky wristwatch was more interested in pretty girls than going to the mosque. He appears relaxed and smiling as he pals around with friends.
Watch below: Paris shooting suspect Cherif Kouachi featured in 2005 documentary about jihadism
At one point, with a baseball cap turned backward on his head, Kouachi belts out some rap music and breaks into a joyful dance.
It was the teachings of a radical Muslim preacher in his Paris neighbourhood, Kouachi is quoted as saying in the documentary, that put him on the path to jihad.
The cleric “told me that (holy) texts prove the benefits of suicide attacks,” Kouachi is quoted as saying.
“It’s written in the texts that it’s good to die as a martyr.”
But Wednesday’s attack wasn’t a “martyrdom operation” noted Dawson, who suggested it could be “the beginnings of something more purposeful.”
“I don’t think we have reason to think there’s a big campaign; it’s clearly prompted by this classic element: The insult to Islam through the running of these cartoons,” he said. “It’s classic terrorism – they’ve gone after a specific offender, and it has symbolic significance, and it sends out a wider terrorist message.”
The brothers were described as jihadists born in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, according to The Telegraph. Cherif sometimes went by the name Abu Issen and belonged to the “Buttes-Chaumont network” of young Parisians that helped send men to join al-Qaida in Iraq during the mid-2000s, according to the report.
The BBC reports both brothers were named in relation to a plot to free Islamist Smain Ait Ali Belkacem from jail in 2010. Belkacem, a member of the Algerian Islamic Armed Group (GIA) was jailed for life in 2002 for a 1995 Paris metro station bombing that injured 30 people, said the report. The brothers were not prosecuted because of lack of evidence, according to the BBC.
A third suspect identified by French authorities in the Paris newspaper attack that killed 12 people and wounded 11 others has turned himself in. Hamyd Mourad, 18, surrendered at a police station after learning his name was linked to the attacks in the news, Paris prosecutor spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre said, but she did not specify his relationship to the Kouachi brothers. He has not been charged, and it’s unclear whether he’s considered a suspect, according to the BBC. The Telegraph reported Mourad was the step-brother of the Kouachis, but that his school friends took to Twitter saying he’d been in class with them at the time of the attack.