Authorities scrambled Thursday to hunt down two French nationals who are suspected of storming the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and gunning down 12 people.
The suspects were identified as Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34. Cherif’s name popped in various news reports over the years in connection with a cell known as “Filiere des Buttes Chaumont” that funneled militants from France to Iraq in the mid-2000s, establishing a clear path of radicalization. Far less is known about Said’s activities.
The facts of the brothers’ early life are these: they were born in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement to Algerian immigrant parents. The New York Times reported that Cherif Kouachi was raised in foster care in Rennes, a town in Western France, citing French newspaper Libération. It’s unclear where Said Kouachi grew up.
The Times reported that at some point in time, Cherif returned to Paris and lived with Said and an unnamed convert to Islam, again citing Libération. Cherif had trained as a fitness instructor, but he’s been described variously as working delivering pizzas, in a supermarket and as a fishmonger, according to the Times.
Cherif appears to have been first arrested in 2005, when Paris police busted the “Filiere des Buttes Chaumont” cell. He told authorities that he met the man who recruited him, Farid Benyettou, at a mosque in Paris’ 19th Arrondissement, which has a large Arab population.
Cherif was supposed to be flying to Syria en route to Iraq when he was arrested. An unnamed lawyer involved with his case said Cherif had begun having second thoughts about fighting in Iraq and was relieved to have been stopped from going there, according to a New York Times report. The report also suggested that Cherif had received no formal weapons training at the time.
During his trial, Cherif expressed outrage about U.S. troops’ torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. He told the court that he “really believed in the idea” of fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, according to the AP. In 2008, he was sentenced to three years in prison, including 18 months he already served.
But Cherif’s attorney, Vincent Ollivier, painted a more sympathetic picture of the suspect in a 2005 interview in Paris with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He described Cherif as someone who wasn’t particularly religious — the kind of guy who “drank, smoked pot, slept with his girlfriend and delivered pizzas for a living.”
There’s some evidence shoring up that portrait. Cherif appeared in a 2005 documentary on French television that showed him as an aspiring rapper after he was arrested on terror charges, according to ABC News.
In the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review interview, Ollivier suggested that Cherif looked to Benyettou, his recruiter, as a sort of older brother figure since his parents were dead by the time they met. He also said he thought Kouachi egged on other militants just to “look brave.”
The attorney stood by that characterization in a Thursday interview with France TV channel BFMTV.
“After being jailed in 2008 he became less juvenile, but I would not say he was a religious extremist,” Ollivier said, as quoted by The Guardian. “During his trial he never spoke of any extremist ideals.”
“The Cherif Kouachi that I knew does not match the person that carried out the killings yesterday,” he added.
In 2010, both Cherif and Said were also linked to a scheme to break out of prison an Islamist named Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, who was serving a life sentence for the 1995 bombing at Saint-Michel metro station in Paris, according to the BBC. The news outlet reported the cases were dropped for lack of evidence, although Cherif was detained for four months, according to Bloomberg.
The brothers’ activity is largely unknown after that run-in with the law. Bloomberg reported that both Cherif and Said returned from Syria last summer, citing the French weekly Le Point. But it’s unclear how long the brothers were there or why.
There is also a third suspect in the attack, 18-year-old Mourad Hamyd, who turned himself in at a police station after learning that his name was published in connection with his attack. Paris prosecutor’s spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre didn’t elaborate on Hamyd’s relationship to the Kourachi brothers.