episode 3.13: Charlie hebdo part 2

Hello, and welcome to this, the second and concluding episode of our investigation into the mass shooting at the office of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France in 2015.

For our Patreon supporters we will have a bonus “Behind the Episode” available, in which I’ll talk a little more about the implications for free speech wrapped up within this case. More info on that at the end of the show.

Stay tuned to hear about Winc, makers of great wine, curated to your taste and delivered to your doorstep.

And now, let’s begin our conclusion to the Charlie Hebdo case.

[Musical introduction]

In last week’s episode we witnessed the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, which was carried out by gunmen who declared loyalty to the Islamist militant organization al-Qaeda. Their murderous assault was a reaction to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, which some Muslims considered to be a deep affront to their faith. Many other Muslim people had peacefully demonstrated to oppose the cartoons, which they regarded as disrespectful and even racist. Meanwhile, the editors of the newspaper said that they also published images depicting Christian and Jewish figures, as well as politicians and celebrities, and that it was an essential aspect of free speech to mock what they regarded as extremist views.

In this concluding episode, we will look at the biographies of the men who committed the crime, as well as that of another attacker who took hostages in a kosher supermarket and killed several people. And we will also consider what the French authorities might or might not have known about the men who committed these crimes.

It was two brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who burst into the editorial boardroom of Charlie Hebdo, in its office building on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, on the 7th of January, 2015. After spraying the room with bullets, they ran out, yelling Allahu Akbar! This Arabic phrase is usually translated as “God is the greatest”. Both brothers were deeply committed to an extreme interpretation of the Islamic faith, and both had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, which had already carried out several attacks in Europe, usually targeting civilians.

After the slaughter at the newspaper’s office, the two gunmen ran out into the street, where they killed a police officer, and then jumped into a getaway car, which might have been driven by a third man. As news of the horrific attack spread, a massive manhunt began. Police warned the public that the assailants were “armed and dangerous” and the French government raised the national terror alert to its highest level.

Because one of the Kouachi brothers left his ID card behind when they abandoned the getaway car, police officers were quickly able to begin to piece things together. Chérif and Saïd were well known to the authorities for their past connections to Islamist groups, and so officers of the French security police raided apartments in the Paris region and two other cities, hunting for the men and any evidence.

On the morning of the 8th of January, the day after the attack, the Kouachi brothers were spotted in a suburb of north-east Paris. Specialist anti-terror officers were deployed to the area to close in on them. The suspects were next seen that afternoon, when they robbed a petrol station. Making their way out of the city in another vehicle, the men once again abandoned their car and then set out on foot in a rural, largely forested area. On their trail, local cops and special ops police continued the manhunt continued through its woodland, small towns, and remote paths.

The brothers broke cover in the early hours of January 9th, hijacking a car near a town north of Paris. A high speed pursuit ensued, with the attackers leading the police on a 27 kilometer chase along a major road, before eventually abandoning their stolen car. After an exchange of gunfire, during which Saïd received a minor neck wound, they made a run for it on foot, once again losing the police. Seeking cover, the brothers forced their way into the premises of a local small business, a sign making company that was just starting work for the day. Inside, the owner, Michel Catalano, was taken hostage. The only other person present, a graphic designer named Lilian Lepère, was able to hide inside the premises. Soon, a salesman arrived at the door. Chérif Kouachi ordered Catalano not raise any suspicions. He would introduce himself to the salesman as a plainclothes police officer, there because of the manhunt, and send him on his way. However, it was Chérif who gave the game away. As he shook hands with the salesman he said: “Leave. We don't kill civilians anyhow.” These strange words made the salesman guess that the man whose hand he had just shaken was one of the terrorists that all of France was looking for. He left, but called the police, who arrive in force within minutes.

A lengthy standoff began. Other businesses and a nearby school were evacuated, and even Charles de Gaulle Airport, the busiest in France, located 10 kilometers away, had two of its three runways closed down. Barricaded inside, the brothers did not respond to police messages. But, after an hour, they allowed Catalano to go free. Unknown to the attackers, Lepère was still inside, hidden amongst some cardboard boxes. At enormous personal risk, he sent the anti-terrorist police text messages for some three hours during the siege. Replying to careful instructions, Lepère was able to provide information on the location of the attackers within the premises.

After over eight hours, France’s internal security minister gave the order for the gendarmerie to move in. At around 5:00 pm, a specialist team landed on the roof of the building from a helicopter. As the officers entered from above, the brothers ran out of the building and opened fire on the police surrounding them. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were shot dead. Lilian Lepère was rescued unharmed.

A man suspected of being the getaway driver was detained, but later released without charge. A fourth person was also arrested for alleged involvement in planning the Charlie Hebdo attack, but he could only be jailed on non-related terrorism charges.

Who were the Kouachi brothers, and what force could have compelled these young men to murder a total of twelve people in cold blood? Well, they were French citizens, born to parents who had moved from North Africa. The Kouachi family was just one of many, many to have come over to France in the post-war period from Algeria, a majority-Muslim, Arab country that had been a French colony since the 1830s.

The brothers were born in Paris: Saïd in 1980 and Chérif in 82. Their father died when they were young, and their mother passed away not long afterwards. The boys were placed in a foster home. After a couple of years, they were moved to an orphanage in the southwest of the country. Leaving care, the brothers returned to Paris and entered into a life of petty crime and precarious employment, while also gravitating towards a very conservative form of Islam. In particular, they, along with several other young Muslim men from their neighborhood, were influenced and mentored by a man named Farid Benyettou at their local mosque. Neither brother was particularly religious at the time, hardly ever going to mosque and spending much of their time playing video games and smoking cannabis. But Benyettou was a charismatic figure who spoke to their sense of disillusionment and introduced them to a particular form of radical Islamic ideology.

Benyettou was a respected figure among young Muslims in the community, even though he was only the same age as the Kouachi brothers. He was a follower and preacher of a very conservative version of Islam called Salafism. This is a school of thought that emerged in Egypt during the 19th Century, in response to the spread of secular and Western ideas during the colonial era. Salafism advocates for a rejection of modern interpretations of Islam and a return to what they consider to be the pure faith of the days of the Prophet Mohammed.

Benyettou gave lessons on the Koran and taught the young men about Salifism and the need to fight against the Western powers that were waging war against their Muslim brothers and sisters in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The radicalization of the Kouachi brothers was spurred by the US-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. In particular, Chérif said that they were outraged by the images that were leaked to the public in 2003, showing US soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Chérif and Saïd joined a group of young Muslim men who regularly gathered in a park in Paris to perform military-style training exercises, with the aim of going to Iraq to fight for al-Qaeda. Benyettou and his band of followers came to the attention of French authorities in 2004. Police and intelligence officers started to monitor the group after four of its members travelled to Iraq to join al-Qaeda and take part in fighting against US forces in the city of Fallujah.

Then in January 2005, Chérif was preparing to go to Iraq with Farid Benyettou in order to join what they regarded as a jihad, or holy struggle, against the US occupiers. However, they were detained by French security forces and imprisoned on terrorism charges. Official documents from the time of his arrest stated that Chérif had come to feel that, quote: “any place on Earth where there is such an injustice is justification for jihad; what was going on in Iraq was in his eyes such an injustice.”

Benyettou’s time in prison proved to be transformative. According to him, he started to de-radicalize, mixing with non-Muslim inmates and taking part in work and activities that allowed him to avoid being consumed within what he considered to be a hard-core Islamist movement that was operating within the prison.

Chérif, on the other hand, went further down the rabbit hole. He befriended another young radicalized Muslim man named Amedy Coulibaly, who was serving a sentence for armed robbery. Together they started to follow an older man in the prison, who had been sentenced to 10 years for attempting to bomb the US embassy in Paris. This older man, who had studied under radical Islamist preachers in London, became a mentor to Chérif, encouraging him in his quest to wage jihad.

Upon leaving prison in 2008, Chérif moved to the 19th arrondisement of Paris, an area with a large immigrant population, including neighborhoods with a bit of a rough reputation. His brother, Saïd, also lived in the area, which was - and still is - known to be a place where many young people, often Muslims, face multiple forms of social deprivation, such as poverty, gang activity, and below average educational levels.

They became students of a radical preacher at a mosque in the neighborhood. In 2008, Chérif was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to three years in prison for recruiting young French Muslim men to go fight for al-Qaeda in Iraq. When he was released, Chérif remained determined to continue his jihadi struggle.

In 2010, he and his friend from prison, Amedy Coulibaly, were part of a plot to break another Islamist out of prison. Coulibaly was found to have illegally stored a huge cache of firearms, and sent back to prison; however, Chérif was released for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile Saïd spent time in Yemen from 2009 to 2011, where he studied the Arabic language. It is alleged that while in Yemen he met with a man who was behind the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight, and that he carried out training with cadres belonging to al-Qaeda. His brother Chérif may also of carried out training in Yemen at this time.

It is believed that French authorities monitored both brothers until at least the spring of 2014, though I’m not sure why - or truly if - they dropped off the radar of the police and security services. How could the French state lose track of the Kouachi brothers, when they were known to have associations with convicted terrorists and to have connections with extremist militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda?

To consider that question, we must find out about a man named Claude Hermant, a police informant who was later arrested for selling guns used by the Kouachi brothers to commit the attack. Mr Hermant, a former paratrooper, was a mercenary and dealer in illegal repurposed weapons. He previously worked as a bodyguard for top members of the far-right French political party the National Front.

Hermant claimed that he was a long-term police informant, and that the French authorities turned a blind eye to his criminal activities in exchange for information. Hermant allegedly fed information to France’s customs’ intelligence agency until 2013 and then worked for the gendarmerie up until his arrest in 2014 for his connection to the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Hermant’s lawyer claimed that his client had always acted purely in the interests of the customs service and of the national police force: “We cannot accept when the gendarmerie’s work is really borderline,” said his lawyer. “When things work out, they are happy, but when things don’t, they hang you out to dry in the ruins. They can’t abandon a soldier in the field like this.”

According to the French daily newspaper Libération, Hermant might have warned the gendarmerie that a convoy of weapons was passing through France en route to Belgium. Allegedly, based on this intelligence, the police intercepted some of the vehicles. But others managed to evade them. It could be that weapons from this convoy were used in the attack. Another newspaper, Voix du Nord, published extracts of emails between Hermant and a gendarme in November 2014. One of those extracts read: “Hey Claude, we talked it over with our superiors. … We’re giving you a green light for the two cases you showed us (weapons in Charleroi).” That’s Charleroi, a city in Belgium, where the weapons used in the attack were purchased.

Does this email suggest that Hermant might have received official approval to sell weapons to known Islamists with links to al-Qaeda? It might not be so far-fetched.

The January 2015 attacks were carried out by people associated with Islamist networks that were known and followed by French intelligence. At that time, France was supporting elements within the opposition that was fighting against the government of Bashar Assad in Syria, in the civil war that had been raging there since 2011. This opposition included Islamist rebels. And in the shadowy world of Syrian opposition activists and militants, that meant that there were going to be some links to some seriously hardcore jihadi forces.

Is it possible that the French authorities in fact did have ongoing knowledge of the activities of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly? Might French intelligence have had some use for such wannabe militants, with connections to an Islamist network in France, who had expressed a wish to wage armed jihad, and who might recruit others to do likewise? Might the French have been interested in sending such men to Syria to fight as part of a proxy army against Assad? I do not know, but it is an interesting thing to consider.

Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.

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Thanks for listening. Now, back to the show.

Amedy Coulibaly, born in 1982, had a long history of criminal activity, including drugs offenses, as well as the armed robbery conviction that sent him to prison, where he met Chérif Kouachi.

Born into a large family in a working-class suburb of Paris, his parents were originally from Mali, a former French colony in West Africa. Like the Kouachi brothers, there were few signs in his early life that he would one day become an Islamist fundamentalist militant. He seemed irreligious, leading a secular lifestyle and almost never attending mosque.

As we have heard, Coulibaly was converted to the Salafist version of the Islamic faith while in prison, and on the outside he had participated in an attempt to spring a fellow Islamist from jail in 2010, for which he was again imprisoned. According to a court-ordered psychological report, he was found to have an “immature and psychopathic personality” with “poor powers of introspection.” His sense of morality was apparently “lacking,” and he had expressed a wish to be “all powerful.”

He was released from prison in March of 2014, his zeal unabated. When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, declared a caliphate in the summer of that year, Coulibaly declared his loyalty to the group and its leader.

In a video that emerged after the attack, Coulibaly is seen in military fatigues, holding a gun, and giving a speech in French, with smatterings of broken Arabic, in front of an Islamic State flag. “What we are doing is completely legitimate, given what they are doing,” he tells the camera. “You cannot attack and not expect retribution so you are playing the victim as if you don’t understand what's happening.”

It was Coulibaly who purchased guns from an arms dealer in Belgium - a man linked to Claude Hermant. These were the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attack, weapons that he too would use in a three-day murder spree.

A few hours after the brothers made their getaway from the newspaper’s office on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, Coulibaly walked out of his apartment and shot a 32-year-old man who was just out jogging in a nearby park. The man suffered injuries to his arm and back. Then, the next day, January 8th, he shot and killed a police officer, and seriously wounded a municipal sanitation worker. Witnesses overheard him shouting allegiance to ISIS.

Around midday on the 9th of January, as Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were holed up inside the sign making business outside Paris, Coulibaly launched his attack on a kosher supermarket in the east of the city. A witness, shopping in the store when Coulibaly attacked, recounted the horrific scene that unfolded: “People were buying things when a man came in with a rifle and started shooting in all directions. I ran out. The shooting continued for several seconds.”

Coulibaly recorded seven minutes of his attack using a GoPro camera, and emailed a copy of the footage using a computer at the supermarket. Two men, one an employee and the other a shopper, were killed as they tried to overpower the attacker. Another two shoppers were killed soon afterwards. All four men were Jewish.

One of the shop assistants, Lassana Bathily, a Malian-born Muslim man, managed to hide fifteen of the shoppers in a cold storage container in the basement. He then made a phone call, alerting the police to the situation.

Upstairs, Coulibaly took several hostages. When the police arrived, a standoff ensued, with Coulibaly stating that he targeted the Kosher grocery in order to kill Jews, which he claimed to be necessary in order to defend Muslim people in the Middle East, especially Palestinians. He also said that his actions were revenge for the Syrian government’s war against ISIS, as well as the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and its allies.

Coulibaly was reportedly in contact with Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, and he told police that he would kill all the hostages if the brothers were harmed.

The shop worker Lassana Bathily managed to escape from the store. Though he was immediately arrested by the police, who thought he was the attacker, he was eventually able to explain that he was an employee. He gave them his key to the window shutters, which Coulibaly had closed. This proved vital when the authorities launched their assault upon the supermarket just after 5pm that day. As soon as the shutter opened, special operations officers surged inside, releasing stun grenades, quickly identifying Coulibaly, and shooting him dead. The hostages and the fifteen people who had been hidden by Bathily were liberated, with only minor injuries.

Police found explosive devises around the supermarket, rigged to a detonator. The wife of Coulibaly was believed by French authorities to have aided her husband in his crimes. However, she is believed to have fled to Syria and her whereabouts are now unknown.

In the months after the siege, Bathily, aged 25, who was a legal resident, was granted French citizenship at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He was also awarded the “Medal of Valor” by the international Jewish human rights organization The Simon Wiesenthal Center.

So, what can we say about the state of social relations in France in the aftermath of these attacks? As I said last week, my French friend here in DC, upon hearing of the Charlie Hebdo attack, believed that something had gone terribly wrong in his home country. He thought it was a national tragedy that France had produced these young men - citizens, born and raised - who were so alienated that they would commit such heinous acts.

As we heard earlier, Farid Benyettou was also one of the angry young men of the 19th arrondisement of Paris. He encouraged his largely secular friends and neighbors, living purposeless lives and working dead-end jobs, to turn to a deeply conservative branch of the Islamic faith. He offered them meaning and purpose through a black-and-white worldview in which the watchword was, “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us”. And, on that basis, he had recruited young French Muslim men to go to Iraq and wage jihad under the black banner of al-Qaeda.

“It is I who gave him the ideology,” Benyettou said of his relationship with Chérif Kouachi. “Who encouraged him … to go to Iraq. When he had doubts, he came to see me, and I would dissipate those doubts.” But something changed in Benyettou. It was in prison, he claimed, that he made the conscious choice to spend time, do work, and take part in activities with non-Muslim inmates, largely in order to avoid the diehard Islamist network on the inside.

A switch did not simply flick in his brain, though. Outside of prison, he did not just give up on all that he believed. But he changed, bit by bit, over time. A key decision was to take up medical studies in order to become a nurse. “I had tried to de-radicalize Chérif during our last discussions,” he claimed. “During the last time we saw each other at the end of 2014. When I was talking to him, I was talking to myself at the same time.”

Benyettou has finished his nursing degree, but he is unable to practice because of his past associations with terrorism. He’s now training to be a truck driver.

The feelings of disenfranchisement in the 19th arrondisement have not gone away. “I think today there is more and more of a feeling of discrimination and injustice and people are propelled towards radical ideologies,” Benyettou said.

Manuel Valls, prime minister at the time of the attacks, said that they highlighted deep divisions in French society. He claimed there was, quote, “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid that has imposed itself upon our country”.

Benyettou put it differently:

You might think we are in a spiral which will never end, and will oblige us to forget about ourselves and accept much more security, and forget our values … We must not lose hope. You have in front of you someone who preached hate for years and who is responsible for many terrible acts, and who has finally changed his ways.

Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.

Next week we will begin our look at the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. On the 16th of October 2017, she was murdered in a car bomb attack while she was driving close to her home. She had been the most prominent critic of corruption in her country, and had made an international name for herself through her leading role investigating the so-called Panama Papers, which exposed massive tax avoidance and evasion by many wealthy and powerful people.

This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember.

I’d like to thank Winc, makers of great wine, curated to your taste, and delivered to your doorstep. If you go to assassinationspodcast.com then you’ll see that we have details of our special listener offer and a link to their website in our show notes. Supporting our sponsors is a great way to support the show, so please check them out!

You can also support the show by making a pledge through Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast. If you’re already a supporter, make sure to check in later today to hear our “Behind the Episode” mini-show, where I’ll talk informally about some of my thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo case.

Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week. 

Until then, goodbye.