The Long, Slow Fuse of Jihad in France
The attacks on "Charlie Hebdo" were the culmination of two men’s decade-long quest to wage holy war.
Cherif Kouachi, one of the alleged suspects in the shooting massacre of 10 journalists at a French satirical weekly in Paris, was a would-be foreign fighter long before the phrase became popular due to the Islamic State’s recruitment of foot soldiers from all over the world. And his older brother, Said Kouachi, who is also suspected in the deadly shooting, has terrorist ties that go back to at least 2011.
Cherif, 32, apparently started down the path toward Wednesday’s attack against Charlie Hebdo at least a decade ago, when he joined a Parisian jihadi outfit known as the 19th Arrondissement Network. Based in a sprawling, racially mixed neighborhood in the northeastern corner of the capital, that group worked to funnel young French Muslim men to Iraq to fight U.S. and coalition forces there after the 2003 invasion.
Cherif, apparently outraged by the U.S. invasion and subsequent torture and abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison just outside Baghdad, sought to join Iraqis in that fight. His arrest by the French police in 2005 stopped him from fighting alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ruthless leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s death from an American airstrike in 2006 would eventually lead to the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who as self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State has turned that once-unknown terror outfit into a regional rival of al Qaeda and its affiliates.
That a man like Cherif would plot for a decade to find a way to kill those he viewed as blaspheming Islam highlights the long and slow-burning fuse of radicalists in Europe, especially in France. And the apparent role of a would-be holy warrior — one with at least two prior arrests and his name on the U.S. no-fly list — in the Charlie Hebdo attack also underscores the magnitude of the challenge facing French counterterrorism officials and police, given the growth of radicalized Muslims in France over the last 10 years.
Since Wednesday, French law enforcement agencies have been engaged in an extensive manhunt to find Cherif and his brother, both French nationals of Algerian descent. Hamyd Mourad, an 18-year-old also suspected to be involved in the attack, reportedly surrendered Wednesday night at a police station in a small town in France’s eastern Champagne region.
Cherif’s radicalization may have begun in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq. The Iraq war was a defining moment for Muslims in France and other European countries that has sowed seeds of discontent that may yield dangerous harvests for years to come, noted Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on radical Islam at Paris’s Sciences Po university, in an essay in the 2014 collection The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death.
“The U.S. invasion of Iraq certainly made France, along with the rest of Europe, a more dangerous place to live,” Filiu wrote. “It will take years to assess the long-term impact of this deterioration of the security environment, triggered by the radicalization of homegrown cells and their manipulation by global outfits.”
While most local networks began as grassroots initiatives, “the very process of channeling human and financial resources led the local groups to blend into the transnational networks of global jihad,” Filiu wrote. “This process indoctrinated local groups with a global ideology that in turn transformed the focus of their targeting from ‘infidels’ in Iraq to objectives closer to home.”
If Cherif’s alleged role in the Charlie Hebdo attack is verified, it would bear out Filiu’s dark prophecy. The French police first arrested Cherif in 2005 as he was about to leave for Damascus en route to Iraq; he was then imprisoned for three years pending trial. Although he was given a three-year sentence in 2008 for being part of the 19th Arrondissement Network, he was released immediately for time served.
While in the 19th Arrondissement Network, Cherif made contact with a Tunisian terrorist, Boubaker el Hakim, who was convicted alongside him in 2008. Hakim’s brother, Redouane, who also traveled from France to Iraq, is believed to have died during a bombardment of Fallujah in 2004.
More recently, Hakim himself is believed to have assassinated two Tunisian politicians and is now a known member of the Islamic State. It’s unclear if Cherif and Hakim stayed in touch with each other in the years after the trial, so any connection to the Islamic State remains unknown, said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which focuses on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Cherif’s arrest spelled the end of the 19th Arrondissement Network. While Cherif said he was relieved to be caught, it clearly did not spell the end of his involvement in terrorist-related activities.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which also killed two Paris policemen, but experts say there are some telltale signs that would indicate a well-formulated plan that may have come from training with a terrorist group such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or one of its many affiliates from North Africa to Yemen. With links to both al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the terrorists’ biographies, it is too soon to tell whether either group was directly involved.
Corinne Ray, a cartoonist who worked at Charlie Hebdo and witnessed the shooting, has told French media that the attackers claimed to be from al Qaeda.
“The ties to the al Qaeda in Iraq network from pre-2005 show that Cherif Kouachi could easily be tied to some significant players, especially as he served jail time, which only further establishes his bona fides within jihadist circles,” said Joscelyn.
Cherif was arrested again in 2010 in connection with the attempted prison escape of Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, an Algerian who carried out terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s. He was eventually released after prosecutors shelved their case.
Cherif’s biography highlights his long-term link with global jihad, and also shows that he was not recently self-radicalized by the Islamic State.
The terrorists’ choice of target also implies that this attack was not in direct retaliation for French military action against the Islamic State in Iraq. France is one of the few countries flying airstrikes with the United States against Islamic State targets inside Iraq.
Charlie Hebdo has often mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, as well as other religions. In 2011, the magazine’s office was badly damaged by a firebomb after it published a spoof issue that was “guest edited” by the Prophet Mohammed in honor of an Islamist party winning Tunisian elections, according to the New York Times. The magazine had announced plans to publish a special issue renamed “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word in French for sharia law.
The magazine’s latest cover imagined France under Islamist rule, and a tweet that came from the magazine just hours before the shooting taunted the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, according to the BBC.
And the magazine’s editor in chief, Stéphane Charbonnier, was specifically threatened in a 2013 edition of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire.
Details about Cherif’s past also suggest that if there is a connection to an outside terrorist group, it is more likely with one of al Qaeda’s affiliates than with the Islamic State, but neither can be ruled out yet, experts say. In part, that’s because the Islamic State itself rose from the ashes of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq after the 2006 death of Zarqawi.
The clearest connection to the al Qaeda universe is Cherif’s involvement with the 19th Arrondissement Network, which was directly supplying French fighters to join Zarqawi’s al Qaeda offshoot group as it fought U.S. and coalition forces.
“The question remains, did Cherif maintain ties to part of the al Qaeda in Iraq network that became the Islamic State or the one that remained loyal to al Qaeda?” Joscelyn said.
A witness on Wednesday said one of the gunmen said he was acting on behalf of “al Qaeda in Yemen,” but that group has yet to claim responsibility for the attack. CNN reported Thursday evening that Said, the elder brother, may have traveled to Yemen as late as 2011, and as early as 2005. Quoting a senior American official, the New York Times reported Thursday that Said, 34, spent “a few months” training in Yemen with al Qaeda’s affiliate there in 2011.
The French news outlet Le Point reported Wednesday that both brothers had traveled to Syria and back as recently as this summer, but that information has yet to be confirmed officially.
And even if true, it does not shed light on whether the men were in contact with the Islamic State, headquartered in Raqqa, or whether they met with members of al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda franchise fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Robert McFadden, a terrorism expert and senior vice president of the Soufan Group, a New York-based security intelligence firm, said he would be surprised if this were an attack directed from the outside.
The attack — a small-scale, tactical assault — is not how al Qaeda has historically operated, he said. While it encourages others to conduct acts of terrorism like this, it does not directly command and control them, he said. Instead, al Qaeda focuses on larger, more spectacular bombings, according to McFadden.
If it turns out al Qaeda or an affiliate did have command and control of Wednesday’s attack, it would be a “very troubling” development, he added.
McFadden is also doubtful that the Islamic State, or ISIS as it’s also known, is behind the attack.
“Despite what it’s saying on social media, ISIS is fighting for its life. It’s so engaged with its own survival and holding territory in Iraq and Syria, it makes it hard to believe that it would attempt an ambitious attack like this,” he said.
Meanwhile, group affiliation is becoming less important than ideology, which is motivating small groups all over the world to carry out violent attacks like Wednesday’s, McFadden said.
At least 700 people were believed to have left France to fight in Syria as of early last year, mostly with the Islamic State. This dwarfs the number of Americans believed to be in the Islamic State’s ranks, which FBI Director James Comey estimated in October was somewhere around a dozen. The number of French foreign fighters today is also orders of magnitude larger than the number of jihadis sent overseas by the 19th Arrondissement Network, which only managed to get a handful of men into Iraq, shedding light on just how much has changed in the fight against terrorism.
The attack in Paris also shows the enormous challenge that intelligence services in France and other European countries face, especially as the magazine was a known target and the attackers already had links to foreign terrorist groups. Additionally, CNN reported Thursday that both brothers had been on a U.S. no-fly list for years and in the U.S. database of known or suspected international terrorists.
“The fact that intelligence services were aware of his interests but did not detect the plot, if Cherif was indeed responsible, suggests a significant oversight, particularly if he had been trained abroad,” said Alisa Lockwood, head of Europe analysis at IHS Country Risk.
A day after the worst attack on French soil since the darkest days of the Algerian war raises the question: Was Cherif on the radar of French authorities, and if not, why not?
“Something fell through the cracks here,” McFadden said. But it also shows “how even A-level police and intelligence services are stretched to capacity given the number of foreign fighters they need to keep track of.”
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen