From orphans to terrorists: journey of the Kouachi brothers

How Cherif and Said Kouachi grew up to carry out the worst terrorist attack in recent French history.

Cherif and Said Kouachi as they return to their car after the attack on the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7. Reuters
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PARIS // Life was never going to be easy for Cherif and Said Kouachi, the French-Algerian brothers who turned to mass murder in a crime that shocked the world and led to their own violent deaths two days later.

Since their attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, details, some inconsistent and confusing, have emerged about the Kouachis and their gradual descent into extremism.

What is not in dispute is that they were the products of appalling childhoods. According to one of the most intimate accounts of their childhood, published by the French news website Reporterre, they not only grew up in poverty but were left each night to run wild on a Parisian housing estate infested by paedophiles.

The same news outlet quotes “Evelyne”, a woman who tried to help children of the estate, as saying their mother resorted to prostitution after the death of her husband to help pay the bills and feed her five children.

Evelyne says Cherif — then about 12, his brother two years older — came home from school one afternoon to find her dead, possibly from a drugs overdose which some neighbours believed she took in a deliberate act to end her life.

The future was already bleak for the boys, and now they were orphans.

Path to radicalisation

The brothers were brought up in a children’s home in the southwestern area of Corrèze, Cherif later spent some time in the Brittany city of Rennes.

Back in Paris, both seem to have slotted into unremarkable lives for young men with origins in tough French banlieues, or suburbs. They smoked cannabis, drank alcohol and had girlfriends, getting by on income from low-paid jobs.

Their habits changed in the process of radicalisation that eventually led them to slaughter 12 people in the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Much media coverage of the recruitment of young men and, sometimes women, to extremist causes focuses on bright, middle-class students whose indoctrination inspires them to abandon careers in medicine, business or the law.

For the Kouachi brothers in particular — Cherif was 32, his brother 34 when they died — the route to extremism followed a more classic path, progressing from their difficult childhoods to radicalisation under the influence of militants bent on winning the hearts and minds of impressionable young people. Cherif and Amedy Coulibaly, the brothers’ main accomplice in the attacks, had both served time in prison during which their militancy grew.

"Cherif was a child like any other," Evelyne, who was close to the family in a north-eastern district of Paris, told Reporterre. "But he knew no love. In religious fanaticism, he found the family he never had.

“They [his mentors] were able to get into his head. It’s easy to pick on such isolated and vulnerable kids. No one was there to guide him on the straight and narrow.

“But if he’d had a happy childhood, would he have become a terrorist?”

Creating militants

It is a troubling question. People the world over survive the most unpromising of origins without becoming ruthless killers.

But it is difficult to dismiss a possible link between loveless, grossly dysfunctional family lives and dehumanised conduct in adulthood.

For a tiny minority, extremism and the thrill of severe violence add extra dimensions to criminality.

Well-meaning people such as Evelyne did their best for the Kouachis and other children. She created an association to inject a little joy into the lives of the sons and daughters of impoverished residents, squeezing grants from public funds to take them on outings, from picnics to visits to the cinema or, once, Eurodisney.

She “adored” Cherif but also remembers Said, smaller than his younger brother, frequently whining or in tears and inseparable from his sibling.

To understand a little of what contributed to the Kouachis’ transition from pitiable orphans to “incomprehensible monsters”, to use Evelyne’s words, it is helpful to visit the 19th arrondissement where they spent part of their childhood.

On the Rue d’Aubervilliers, a few nights after the dramatic events of January 7-9, a group of young men huddled together, studying those walking by.

High above their heads, many of the small, dark windows in a 15-storey tower had their metal shutters drawn down. Across the street, a tall cement wall ran as far as the eye could see; from behind it, trains could be heard rattling past.

Before their mother’s death, they lived here in what is termed a Habitation à Loyer Modéré (HLM), basic accommodation for low-income families. It is difficult to imagine the charming boulevards and imposing architecture of one of the world’s most-loved cities is a short ride away on the underground railway.

It was little more than a kilometre from here, in the Buttes Chaumont park, that Cherif trained to fight with Al Qaeda in Iraq, meeting like-minded individuals, learning from instruction manuals and drawings how to handle Kalashnikovs and exercising to maintain a high level of fitness. This was the so-called “Buttes Chaumont network” that would prepare young men for combat, initially on foreign battlefields.

Cherif had obtained a sports education qualification while in Rennes. Returning to Paris and the 19th arrondissement, he found work delivering pizzas and in a fish market. Said had occasional employment as a waiter or restaurant kitchen hand. But for the last 10 years of their lives, they were increasingly attached to a twisted notion of Islam.

But Cherif, in particular, was not always especially devout. Paris-Match magazine quotes him as telling investigators when questioned about earlier offences: "I am what is considered a 'ghetto Muslim'. That means I live my life as I wish. I go and see my girlfriend and then go to repent. I don't see myself as a good Muslim. I smoke and all that with my friends."

On her way out of the block of flats where the Koauchis spent their early years, a woman giving only a first name, Amina, knows about the connection. “It is not very surprising that this is where they started out,” she says. “It is not a very easy life, living here.”

Blocks away, on Rue de Tanger, is an empty plot where the Adda’wa mosque once stood, before it was demolished and relocated to another part of the city.

Overgrown and gated, the site faces another cluster of HLM apartments. It was in this area that Cherif frequently prayed as an adult, and where his first known mentor, Farid Benyettou, preached radical Islam.

Cherif and Benyettou had known each other before both were convicted and jailed for their roles in a network that sent recruits to Iraq to fight with Al Qaeda against US forces.

Benyettou's past militancy is undeniable, but its scale is open to some doubt. Some media reports suggest he dissuaded Cherif when he expressed a wish to firebomb Jewish-owned shops. Bloomberg News said at the time of their trial in 2008, that Benyettou told him France, unlike Iraq, was "not a land of jihad".

Benyettou, who has renounced radicalism and trained as a nurse since leaving jail, saw Cherif two months before the Charlie Hebdo attack. "The only thing he wanted to talk about was fighting," he told the iTELE news channel.

He said Cherif showed particular interest in the deadly rampage of Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people, including three children outside a Jewish school, in a wave of attacks in the southwestern French cities of Toulouse and Montauban in 2012. Merah was also killed, shot by police marksmen after a siege of his flat.

The obsession with violence was sharply at odds with how Cherif presented himself during in his 2008 trial. Then, Le Monde newspaper reported, he told the judge he was relieved to have been arrested before his own planned departure. "The closer it got, the more I wanted to turn back," he said. "But if I chickened out, I was in danger of looking like a coward."

Two years later he was in trouble again, suspected of participating in an abortive plot to free Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, an Algerian terrorist who bombed a central Paris railway station in 1995, from jail. The charge was dropped due to lack of evidence.

Coulibaly, a French-Malian, was convicted and received a five-year sentence for the plot.

Both men are known to have met Djamel Beghal, another French-Algerian who had a reputation as Al Qaeda’s leading European recruiter. Beghal had served a jail term for plotting to bomb the US embassy in Paris.

Coulibaly told French television after seizing hostages at a Kosher grocery shop that he belonged to ISIL. But the brothers’ allegiance, on their own account, was to the Yemen-based group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Certainly, at least one of the Kouachis — Said — had visited Yemen for training and Arabic studies.

Said’s past involvement with extremism is less well-documented than his brother’s. He had been arrested at least twice, but was released each time without charges.

He has claimed, in an interview with a Yemeni journalist, that when studying and training in Saana, he briefly shared accommodation with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a wealthy Nigerian banker’s son. Abdulmutallab tried unsuccessfully to blow up a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

In the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers, where Cherif had an apartment, both had been seen at a local mosque, but not recently. The US television network CNN quoted the imam, Mohammed Benali, as saying Said was "quiet, reserved" though he had once reacted angrily when the preacher urged worshippers to vote in French presidential elections. "For these lunatics, when we practise and teach moderate Islam — actual Islam — we're non-believers," said Mr Benali.

Unanswered questions

The dead have been buried and the huge demonstrations of solidarity with victims of the attacks are over. As France recovers and neighbouring European countries seek to avoid further terrorist attacks, questions about the three Paris gunmen remain unanswered.

US authorities were aware of the Kouachis' activities in Yemen and alerted French intelligence as long ago as 2011. Surveillance was carried out but ended last year. A senior Yemeni security official told The National last week that the Paris atrocities and attempted destruction of the Detroit-bound jet might have been averted had western intelligence shared information.

Are dangerous accomplices still at large? Could the attacks have been prevented? Or is it simply the case, as former intelligence chiefs argue, that continuous monitoring is impossible when so many potential suspects are at liberty?

The Kouachi brothers both leave widows who have reportedly expressed horror at their husbands’ actions. Coulibaly’s partner, whom he considered to be his wife though the union was not formalised under French law, is on the run, believed to be in Syria.

And Evelyne, the charity volunteer who saw the brothers growing up, is thinking the unthinkable.

"I should not say it," she told Reporterre. "You are going to think I'm crazy, but somehow, these kids, I pity them."