The two brothers who died in a tense hostage standoff in the French town of Dammartin on Friday had hoped to “die as martyrs,” according to authorities. One was trained in Yemen; another was jailed after trying to make his way to fight in Iraq.
Chérif Kouachi, 32, and Säid Kouachi, 34, were the primary suspects behind Wednesday’s massacre of 12 people at the Paris offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. They were raised in French foster care in a region not far from Paris. But in the last 10 years, both seemed drawn to violence and causes carried out in the name of Islamic extremism.
As details continue to emerge, the Kouachi brothers’ lives are coming into focus. Chérif Kouachi was known for anti-Semitic views and had been sentenced in 2008 for his part in recruiting jihadists to fight against U.S. troops in Iraq. He ended up spending 18 months in prison before the rest of his three-year sentence was suspended.
In a related incident, a gunman identified as 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly was killed after taking hostages in a Kosher grocery store in Paris. Coulibaly and Chérif Kouachi had known each other for at least four years; they were charged together in 2010 with a plot to free a terrorist from priosn, after he had been convicted of blowing up a French train facility. Coulibaly was reportedly involved in the Thursday killing of a policewoman and the wounding of a street sweeper in the Montrouge neighborhood of Paris. Le Monde reported Hayat Boumedienne, 26, has been identified as a companion of Coulibaly, and is also a suspect in the Thursday killing.
The hostage situations on Friday came hours before the Jewish Sabbath and the Paris grocery store would have been full of shoppers preparing for the religious observance. The shooting in Montrouge believed to involve Coulibaly took place across from a Jewish school.
The possible connection between Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers raises questions as to how organized the shooters were and their connections to extremist groups. France has roughly 1,200 nationals who are known to be or have been involved in the in the war in Syria, according to the Associated Press.
The Kouachis, who appeared to be familiar with the assault rifles used in the attack, yelled “Allahu Akbar” as they fled the scene of Wednesday’s brutal shooting, which killed a top editor, an economist, police officers, and other employees of the paper. They had long been known to French and American intelligence officials for their checkered pasts and both had been listed on U.S. no-fly lists for years. A neighbor of Chérif Kouachi, who does not want to be named of identified, told NBC News the suspect “was a jerk.”
“He didn’t say hello. He didn’t respond when you said, hello,” she said. “His companion wore the hijab when she left with the police on Wednesday night.”
A second unidentified neighbor who reportedly lived a floor below Chérif Kouachi said he did not dress “religiously.”
“He wore normal clothes, jeans, and sneakers. He kept to himself. He was discreet. His wife wore a full niqab,” said the downstairs neighbor. “Some mornings, I could hear him speaking loudly, as if in a dispute with someone.”
In 2005, Chérif Kouachi was arrested along with Farid Benyettou, a 26-year-old janitor turned preacher, as they left France for Syria via Iraq. Chérif Kouachi reportedly had no interest in religion before meeting Benyettou, said documentarian Magalie Ferre, who made a film that included 2004 footage of Kouachi playing hip-hop music. Ferre spoke extensively with Benyettou but never met Kouachi because he was in in prison when the film was being made around 2008.
“He met Farid Benyettou in 2004 and in six months he changed and he tried to go to Iraq,” Ferre said. She added that Kouachi’s views changed particularly “because he was very shocked by pictures of Abu Ghraib.”
The other man suspected in the Paris shooting, Säid Kouachi, left his passport in the getaway car, a Citroën. The older of the two, he reportedly spent months training with al-Qaida in Yemen before returning to France, according to The New York Times.
Charlie Hebdo had long been the target of extremists for pillorying Islam and, in particular, for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Some believe that the Quran forbids visual depictions of Muhammad.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Thursday that the suspects were “being watched over, but there were no elements at the time to warrant starting an inquiry.” He added that authorities had spoken with the Kourachis’ family members.