PARIS — The man who allegedly orchestrated France’s deadliest terrorist attack in half a century was introduced to radical Islam by a charismatic janitor who led a band of social misfits and petty criminals through military-style training exercises in a Paris park.
At the time, Chérif Kouachi was a pot-smoking pizza delivery man, drifting through life with only the vaguest of attachments to religion.
But his indoctrination more than a decade ago would prove fateful. It fired a zeal for violence that was apparently never extinguished despite an aborted trip to Iraq to battle U.S. forces, a three-year prison term and a long stretch when Kouachi convinced those around him — and perhaps even French law enforcement — that he had given up his dream of dying a martyr.
Now Kouachi and his brother are the subjects of one of the largest manhunts in French history, a day after allegedly gunning down a dozen people in an attack on a satirical newspaper in the heart of Paris.
“This was the realization of a long-term obsession,” said Myriam Benraad, a researcher at the Paris-based Sciences Po university who has closely studied the group of young men, Kouachi included, who were indoctrinated by the janitor and self-styled preacher at a northern Paris mosque.
Kouachi’s long-standing involvement in France’s radical Islamist movement is bound to raise questions about why the 32-year-old Paris native was not being more closely tracked by French intelligence services.
U.S. officials confirmed Thursday that the brothers were on the no-fly list, which contains the names of U.S. citizens and residents as well as foreigners not permitted to fly into or out of the United States because of specific security concerns. There are about 47,000 names on the list, the vast majority of whom are foreigners.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials were carefully reviewing all available information about Kouachi to determine whether he could have used his low profile in recent years to quietly slip out of the country for terrorist training. U.S. officials said Thursday that his older brother, Said Kouachi, 34, appears to have traveled to Yemen in 2011 in an effort to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate there.
Authorities are also looking into whether Chérif Kouachi made a more recent trip to Syria. So far, there’s no direct evidence that either brother had done so.
For more than a year, European security officials have been fixated on the danger posed by the thousands of young men and women who have left the continent to fight in Syria’s ever-deepening civil war. Many have returned home, and intelligence agencies have scrambled to track their movements amid calls by the Islamic State for Europe’s Muslims to bring the war to the West.
But Kouachi was part of an earlier generation of converts to radical Islam, one that predates the chaos unleashed following the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the declaration of a caliphate by Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria last year.
Like many of those seduced today, Kouachi was young and directionless when he fell under the spell of radical Islam. He worked odd jobs, smoked pot, drank and engaged in petty theft, said a lawyer who later represented him.