Thirteen men and a woman go on trial Wednesday over the 2015 attacks against a satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket in Paris that marked the beginning of a wave of violence by the Islamic State group in Europe.
Seventeen people and all three gunmen died during the three days of attacks in January 2015. Later that year, a separate network of French and Belgian fighters for Islamic State struck Paris again, this time killing 130 people in attacks at the Bataclan concert hall, the national stadium, and in bars and restaurants.
Those on trial in France’s terrorism court are accused of buying weapons, cars, and helping with logistics. Most say they thought they were helping plan an ordinary crime. Three, including the only woman accused, are being tried in absentia after leaving to join Islamic State.
The attacks from Jan. 7-9, 2015, started during an editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo, whose offices had been unmarked and guarded by police since the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed years before. Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, gunned down 12 people before carjacking a vehicle and fleeing. They claimed the attacks in the name of al-Qaida.
Two days later, on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, Amedy Coulibaly stormed the Hyper Cacher supermarket, killing four hostages in the name of the Islamic State group as the brothers took control of a printing office outside the French capital. The attackers died that day during near-simultaneous police raids.
It took days more for investigators to realize that Coulibaly was also responsible for the seemingly random death of a young policewoman the previous day.
It took further weeks to unravel the network of petty criminals and neighbourhood friends linking the three attackers. By then, Coulibaly’s wife had left for Syria with the help of two brothers also charged in the case. Most of the 11 who will appear insist their help in the mass killings was unwitting.
“Since 2012, terrorism capitalized on the prevailing delinquency there is around these terrorists,” said Samia Maktouf, a lawyer for one of the attack survivors. “They are not second fiddles, they are full accomplices. You know, when you provide a weapon it’s not to go and party.”
Despite a global outpouring of support, the attacks were also seen as a massive intelligence failure. French authorities ended a phone tap on one of the Kouachi brothers a few months before they stormed the editorial offices. At least one had trained with al-Qaida in Yemen and been convicted of an earlier terrorism offence. The brothers walked away from the carnage they had caused, escaping easily and drove through multiple dragnets before being trapped two days later.
“The government failed. If the intelligence services had done their job, this would not have happened,” said Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, lawyer for the only person in court facing a life term. “The victims don’t just want a guilty verdict, but real justice. The truth must come out. It’s not a justice of vengeance, but a justice to know.”
Wednesday’s trial opened under tight security, with multiple police checks for anyone entering the main courtroom or the overflow rooms. At nearby newsstands, the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo appeared, defiantly reprinting the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed cited by the gunmen who killed so many of the publication’s editorial staff.
“They died so that you journalists could do your jobs,” said Richard Malka, lawyer for Charlie Hebdo. “Let us not be afraid. Not of terrorism, not of freedom.”
The only person in the courtroom facing a life sentence is Ali Riza Polat, who is accused of serving as the link between the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly. He appears at each stage of planning the attack, according to the judicial investigation, organizing secure phone lines, checking the price of explosives and ammunition, and travelling with Coulibaly to Belgium.
Polat was the first among the accused to speak Wednesday, briefly confirming his name and date of arrest.
Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for the hostages at the supermarket, said he regretted that the outpouring of support for free speech after the Charlie Hebdo killings was not matched by a similar outpouring over the anti-Semitic nature of the attacks.
“I want to discuss a word, a word that has disappeared from this procedure: anti-Semitism. When you attack a kosher market, you are hitting people in their daily lives, their culture, their rituals … they knew that on this day, they were hitting Jews at the most sacred, most familial moment of the week.”
He said that without those being charged “there would be no Coulibaly.”