A massive manhunt is underway for brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, the main suspects in a 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 both appear to have jihadist backgrounds.
Both were French nationals of Algerian descent and come from secular backgrounds, according to The New York Times. A French newspaper report cited by The Times said 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 third person, a convert to Islam.
Cherif reportedly worked delivering pizzas and as a shop assistant and fishmonger while he lived in France.
His introduction to radical Islam came from a janitor at a Paris mosque named Farid Benyettou, The Washington Post reports. Benyettou was charismatic and shared the same working-class background as Cherif. Benyettou’s influence led to the janitor becoming a challenge to the leadership of Paris’s Addawa Mosque, where the imam was seen as disconnected from the issues affecting North Africans in the city.
Bemyettou was known as the spiritual leader of a terror cell “Filiere [brothers] des Buttes Chaumont,” a group that helped funnel fighters into Iraq during the American invasion, according to Bloomberg.
The terror cell’s recruits reportedly traveled to fight alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in 2006. Cherif, who has also taken the name Abu Issen, was linked to the cell in 2005 and has been arrested twice in connection with terrorists in France.
While the brothers were involved with Benyettou and the terror cell they reportedly learned how to operate automatic weapons like the ones used in Wednesday’s attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has published cartoons that some Muslims find offensive.
Experts, citing the video of the attack, believe the attackers were professionally trained.
A French magazine cited a police source saying the brothers were “small time delinquents who became radicalized,”according to The Telegraph.
Cherif was arrested in 2005 days before he was set to fly to Syria and then to Iraq, The Telegraph reports. In 2008, he 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 the torture of Iraqi inmates 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.
Cherif’s next arrest came in 2010 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 convicted.
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.
Cherif’s older brother is believed to have had more direct ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Said is suspected of having traveled to Yemen and participated in an AQAP training camp, according to The Long War Journal.
The New York Times, citing an unnamed senior US official, reported that Said trained for a few months on small arms. According to two unnamed Yemeni officials that spoke to the Associated Press, Said is suspected of having fought alongside AQAP during the Arab Spring when the organisation overran large segments of the south of the country.
Said is thought to have been in Yemen until 2012.
The two brothers were both on the US “no fly” list that would have prevented either one from boarding a commercial flight to the United States. The brothers were also on a US master list of suspected individuals with ties to terrorism, an unnamed US official told Bloomberg.
The brothers most recently lived in Gennevilliers, a Paris suburb, according to Bloomberg.
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