When Chérif Kouachi first came to the attention of the French authorities as a possible terrorist a decade ago, he was in his early 20s and, according to testimony during a 2008 Paris trial, had dreamed of attacking Jewish targets in France. Under the influence of a radical Paris preacher, however, he decided that fighting American troops in Iraq presented a better outlet for his commitment to jihad.
On Wednesday, Kouachi, according to investigators, returned to his original plan of waging holy war in France. Along with his older brother Said and a third French Muslim of North African descent, he was named as one of three who were involved in an assault on a satirical newspaper in Paris that left at least 12 people dead.
Le Point, a leading French news magazine, said the two brothers had both been known by the intelligence services, and that Mourad was unemployed. It said the police had identified the suspects after one left his identification papers in the abandoned Citroën vehicle used to escape after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
The massacre left France stunned. It also raised questions about how Chérif Kouachi, so well known to police for so many years, and his brother had managed to conceal their intentions. Part of the answer may be that they appear to have moved smoothly between normal immigrant society and an extremist Islamist underground. Born in the 10th Arrondissement, they came from secular backgrounds and initially drifted into petty delinquencies, not religious fanaticism.
Libération, a French newspaper, described Chérif Kouachi as an orphan whose parents were Algerian immigrants. It said he was raised in foster care in Rennes before moving to Paris, where he lived with Said in the home of a convert to Islam.
He was first arrested in 2005 in connection with a case centered on Farid Benyettou, a 26-year-old janitor-turned-preacher who gave sermons calling for jihad in Iraq and justifying suicide bombings. Among Benyettou’s would-be recruits was Chérif Kouachi, then 22, who was detained as he prepared to leave for Syria, the first leg of a trip he hoped would take him to Iraq.
Brought to trial in 2008, he was presented by his lawyer as a confused chameleon who, when not attending classes on jihad by Benyettou, smoked marijuana, listened to rap music and described himself as an “occasional Muslim.”
Chérif’s interest in radical Islam, it was said at the 2008 trial, was rooted in his fury over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly the mistreatment of Muslims held at Abu Ghraib prison.