Trib had warned of terror threat by French brother in 2005 story
One of the brothers sought in the violent attack at a French satire magazine Wednesday had radicalized a decade ago, the Tribune-Review warned in a story from 2005 .
Cherif Kouachi had been heading to Iraq to take up jihad against American and Iraqi soldiers when French police arrested him and two others, the newspaper reported. Yet Kouachi had been leading a personal life that was in conflict with his intentions — and with the murderous acts he's accused of committing this week, his lawyer said.
Kouachi drank, smoked pot, slept with his girlfriend and delivered pizzas for a living, his lawyer at the time, Vincent Ollivier, told the Trib. Kouachi's parents, Algerian immigrants, had died, and he was looking to an Islamist recruiter for guidance.
“He found someone who could tell him what to do,” Ollivier said then, “like an older brother.”
Today Kouachi, 32, and his older brother, Said, 34, are wanted for killing a dozen people Wednesday in a brazen attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that had been critical of Islam and recently published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Mark Houser, a former investigative reporter for the Trib, said he learned about Kouachi while working on a larger story about radical Muslims across Europe. Even at the time, Houser said he doubted whether the lawyer was being sincere — or if he was simply defending his client — when he said Kouachi had second thoughts about going to Iraq and had indicated he may have been glad he had been arrested.
“I'm not very surprised,” Houser said Thursday about Kouachi's alleged role in the attacks. “I didn't believe his attorney. I don't know if his attorney even believed that (Kouachi) was not really dangerous. I think it's really upsetting and tragic that someone of his potential danger, and who was as clearly interested in jihad as he was, remained at large.”
Kouachi had been arrested in January 2005 as he attempted to travel to Syria and then sneak across the border into Iraq, where he planned to fight against American and Iraqi troops. Three years later, he appeared in court wearing a track suit and sneakers, according to a report in the French daily Le Monde.
He and three other defendants faced up to 10 years in prison, but a judge sentenced Kouachi to three years, with an 18-month suspended sentence and credit for time served, according to media reports. He was released immediately.
The Trib reported at the time that terrorism defendants had fewer rights in France than in the United States — with tougher interrogation and admissible evidence rules — but their sentences tended to be much more lenient, usually maxing out at 10 years.
Once he got out of prison, Kouachi apparently resumed his radical activities. USA Today said he and his brother returned to France last summer from fighting in Syria, where Islamic State fighters are attempting to establish a government. It's not clear whether the brothers had gone there as fighters or, if so, what rebel group they had joined, an expert told the Trib.
European governments have struggled to fight terrorism while upholding the strict rule of law, said Michael Kenney, a University of Pittsburgh professor who recently returned from London, where he met with the former members of a banned group of Islamic activists.
Europe has a very active Islamic scene with radical groups holding protests, staging rallies and setting up preaching stalls on the street, he said. Their language might be provocative at times, but without breaking the law.
“It's been a major challenge for the British government, the French government and the German government,” Kenney said. “These are all vibrant, liberal democracies that try hard to protect their individual citizens' political rights and civil liberties while also balancing the protection of those rights against the safety of society.”
Democracies can have a harder time fighting terrorism because of their openness, but they keep down violence by allowing people to freely express ideas, said James Piazza, a Penn State University professor who studies terrorism and radical Islam.
“In a free society, there are limits to what the police can do,” Piazza said. “But (democracies) also provide an important safety valve that allows people to express a range of ideas that are not violent. ... They are better at respecting certain rights that redirect the radical effect.”
Kouachi's lawyer in 2005 said his client had told other militants that they should attack Jewish interests in France, but Ollivier dismissed such talk as Kouachi's only putting up a front to look brave.
Kouachi was among a group of radical Muslims who lived in Paris' 19th arrondissement, a residential district crowded with North African immigrants and their descendants, along with native French. Investigators identified the drab, concrete Addawa mosque on the narrow Rue de Tanger as the place where a jihad recruiter met with Kouachi and other young Muslims and persuaded them to sneak into Iraq.
Houser, who works at Robert Morris University as university editor and an adjunct professor of communication, said he was drawn to the subject because of the challenges Western governments face in fighting terrorism and radical Muslims.
“In many of my interviews, officials clearly understood the danger and knew who some of the potentially dangerous people were,” Houser said. “It definitely troubled them that they had to balance their actions against the rule of law and civil rights.”
Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or email@example.com.