A massive manhunt is underway for brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who are suspected of carrying out a terrorist shooting attack in Paris that killed 12 people on Wednesday.
The brothers have been well-known to French authorities for at least a decade and reportedly had known connections to Islamic terrorists.
More is known about Cherif, 32, than Said, 34, but it seems that both have jihadist backgrounds.
Both were of Algerian descent and come from secular backgrounds, according to The New York Times. A French newspaper report cited by the Times says that Cherif was raised in foster care in western France and trained to be a fitness instructor before he moved to Paris, where he lived with his brother and a convert to Islam.
Cherif reportedly worked as a pizza delivery man, shop assistant, and fishmonger while he lived in France.
He was influenced by the radical Paris mosque preacher Farid Benyettou, who was known as the spiritual leader of the terror cell “Filiere des Buttes Chaumont,” a group that helped funnel fighters into Iraq during the American invasion, according to Bloomberg.
The terror cell’s recruits were reportedly going to fight alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Al Qaeda leader in Iraq who was killed in 2006.
While they were involved with Benyettou and the terror cell, they reportedly learned how to use automatic weapons like the ones used on Wednesday’s attack of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has published cartoons that some Muslims find offensive.
Experts, citing the video of the attack, believe that the attackers were professionally trained.
A French magazine cited a police source saying the brothers are “smalltime delinquents who became radicalized,” according to The Telegraph.
Cherif, who has also taken the name Abu Issen, was linked to the cell in 2005 and has been arrested twice before in connection with terrorists in France.
His 2005 arrest came days before he was due to fly to Syria and then on to Iraq, The Telegraph reports. In 2008, Cherif was convicted on terrorism charges related to the 2005 case and sentenced to three years in prison with an 18-month suspended sentence.
During his trial, Cherif said he was outraged by images of Iraqi inmates being tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison run by the US in Iraq. He also mentioned wanting to attack Jewish targets in France, according to the Times.
He said he “really believed in the idea” of jihad, according to the Associated Press.
Cherif’s lawyer portrayed him as a normal young man who had gone astray and realised the error of his ways, noting that he liked to drink and smoke pot and “wasn’t particularly religious,” according to a reporter who traveled to Europe to study the threat of Islam for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2005.
The lawyer said Cherif had been having second thoughts about jihad after his arrest.
But that appeared not to hold.
Cherif’s next run-in with police came in 2010 when he was arrested in connection with the attempted prison escape of former Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) member Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, who had carried out terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s, according to The Telegraph. Said’s name also appeared in the police report, and although Cherif was held for four months, neither brother ended up being charged.
They reportedly traveled to Syria after this, returning last summer, Bloomberg reports.
Cherif is also thought to have ties to French jihadist Djamel Beghal, who spent 10 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks, The Telegraph reports. Cherif and Beghal were thought to have participated in militant training together.
The brothers most recently lived in Gennevilliers, a Paris suburb, according to Bloomberg.
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