The manhunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers led to a day of chaos in Paris, as the perpetrators – Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his brother Said Kouachi, 34 – went to ground in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, not far from Charles de Gaulle airport. At the same time, the man who murdered an unarmed French policewoman yesterday, now believed to be a member of the same terrorist cell as the Kouachi brothers, has taken hostages of his own, and reportedly offered to trade them for the brothers’ freedom – an offer the French authorities are unlikely to accept.
There have also been reports of other disturbances across Paris, including a report from the Eiffel Tower that appears to have been a false alarm. According to a report in the Washington Post, the mayor of Paris ordered shops in the Marais neighborhood near the Charlie Hebdo offices closed, just hours before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, when the shops would normally have been overflowing with customers. No specific reason for this measure had been given at the time of this writing. A school near the printing plant where the Kouachi brothers are surrounded by police has also been closed and evacuated, apparently with cooperation from the terrorists.
The Washington Post describes the scene at the CTF Creation Tendance Decouverte printing plant in Dammartin-en-Goule, which the Charlie Hebdo killers reached in a hijacked car, after robbing a convenience store for food and gas:
“They said they want to die as martyrs,” Yves Albarello, a local lawmaker who said he was inside the command post, told French television station i-Tele.One of the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo killings, Cherif Kouachi, 32, was convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 for ties to a network sending jihadis to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. A U.S. official said his 34-year-old brother, Said, had visited Yemen, although it was unclear whether he was there to join extremist groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based there. Witnesses said he claimed allegiance to the group during the attack.
Both were also on the U.S. no-fly list, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. The American officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss foreign intelligence publicly.
Nine people, members of the brothers’ entourage, have been detained for questioning in several regions. In all, 90 people, many of them witnesses to the grisly assault on the satirical weekly, were questioned for information on the attackers, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
With the brothers trapped, Charles de Gaulle closed two runways to arrivals to avoid interfering in the standoff or endangering planes.
A quote from a local youth sums up the atmosphere of the town:
Louis Zenon, a 14-year-old who lives close to siege site, watched as helicopters hovered over closed-off industrial area.
“There is a lot of fear,” he said, adding everyone he knew was staying home with their doors and shutters closed. “We’re scared. The schools are being evacuated.”
CNN relates that at least one employee of the printing plant had a friendly encounter with the gunmen on his way into work, shaking hands with one of them because, based on his black garb and heavy weapon, he thought he was dealing with a policeman. The terrorist then told him, “Go, we don’t kill civilians,” and the employee left the scene. The exact number of hostages inside the plant has not been confirmed by the authorities, although the New York Daily News is one of several sources to report that a single 26-year-old man is being held captive inside the plant. Nearly 1,500 police officers are said to have surrounded the building.
The Post observes that police and intelligence agencies across Europe, and in the United States and Australia, have been worried about the threat posed by radicalized recruits with military training returning from service alongside ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Among the most important questions swirling around the Kouachi brothers are how they were trained, and how they came into possession of so many powerful weapons, given France’s heavy gun control laws. They’ve been on the radar screens of French police for over a decade, following a career of petty crimes, including drug use. They even cut a rap video.
The UK Daily Mail calls their backgrounds “depressingly familiar,” which is an alarming assessment indeed, given the huge pool of similar disaffected youths available for recruitment by terrorist organizations and fire-breathing radical imams:
Orphaned at a young age, they drifted into a life of smoking drugs, petty offending and rap music – only to cast it off for radical Islam.
Branded a ‘scrawny pipsqueak and apprentice loser’ Cherif, 32, has been on the French security services’ radar for a decade and was described as a ‘ticking timebomb’.
Having been radicalised by a charismatic cleric in Paris, he was arrested as he planned to travel to Iraq to become a jihadist in 2005.
He later became a student of Djamel Beghal, who attended the Finsbury Park mosque in north London when it was controlled by firebrand cleric Abu Hamza.
Meanwhile Said, 34, was implicated in a 2010 plot to spring a notorious terrorist from prison.
The brothers were born in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a nondescript district only a short distance from the offices of the magazine they are accused of targeting.
They were orphaned when their Algerian-born parents died while they were still young boys.
Their parents are likely to have arrived in France after the bitter war of Algerian Independence which ended in 1962.
Cherif grew up in a children’s home in Brittany before returning to live in northern Paris.
Until the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003 he was typical of many of the young men from poor immigrant communities who live in the grim suburbs circling the capital.
Describing himself as ‘an occasional Muslim’, he smoked cannabis, drank, dealt drugs, chased women and got a job as a pizza delivery man.
A video shows him singing a rap song, wearing jeans, sunglasses and a baggy sweatshirt with a red baseball cap backwards on his head.
He had a minor criminal record and was said to be more interested in pretty girls than the mosque.
That’s almost exactly the same background as the young men recruited by terrorist organizations from comparable communities in the United States, notably the Somali community in Minnesota. Those young men were also supposed to have been more interested in hanging out and smoking pot than spending time at the mosque… until they were radicalized virtually overnight, to the astonishment of everyone who knew them in high school.
But Cherif changed dramatically after he began worshipping at the Adda’wa mosque in the Stalingrad district of Paris. Here he came under the influence of imam Farid Benyettou, who was only a year older than him but already preaching an extremist ideology.
Cherif began attending prayer classes, grew a beard and started to watch jihadist videos.
He would later tell a court he was particularly affected by reports on the abuse of Muslim prisoners by US troops at the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq.
The same media that says it must suppress the images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and surgically edit the details of the Kouachi brothers’ attack to avoid a hypothetical future anti-Muslim backlash from ignorant American racists – with the New York Times going so far as stealth-editing the eyewitness account of a Charlie Hebdo survivor who said she was told to wear a veil and convert to Islam by the killers – were happy to spread the most lurid details of Abu Ghraib, along with plenty of advice for how outraged Muslims were supposed to be.
Benyettou was at the heart of the Buttes Chaumont terror cell, named after the hilly park in north-eastern Paris where the group’s members trained.
The young would-be jihadists held strong convictions, but their preparations for going to war on the West were laughably amateurish.
They jogged around the park a few times to get fit, and were given one lesson in how to use a Kalashnikov using sketches of the rifle.
Needless to say, no one is laughing now. As the Daily Mail notes, Cherif was one of many cell members who tried to get over to Syria to join al-Qaeda and its satellites, or join the insurgency in Iraq, but he was arrested by the police on the very day he was scheduled to depart. He served 18 months of a three-year jail sentence for terrorist recruiting, emerging from prison with a stronger body and a fresh set of jihadi contacts, including a senior terrorist leader who was only a few steps removed from the then-living Osama bin Laden. Among his subsequent activities was the attempted prison break of one of the 1995 Paris railway bombers. He has apparently described himself as a member of al-Qaeda, specifically the Yemen franchise.
For the record, his neighbors described him as kind and helpful… but eventually that ticking human time bomb exploded, and here we are. As this article went to press, at 11 AM Eastern time, explosions and gunfire were being reported from the printing plant, so the standoff may be coming to an end.