Assaulting Democracy: The Deep Repercussions of the Charlie Hebdo Attack
Part 2: From Smoking Pot to the Jihad
The attack in Paris was one targeted at the entire world, but it's also one that hit, with great precision, a country that is experiencing significant uncertainty. There have been few times in postwar French history when public sentiment has been as downtrodden as it is now. After two and a half years of Hollande's Socialist government, there are no signs that France's decline is reversing.
The country's key indicators are a disaster. During the first half of Hollande's term, the number of unemployed has risen to 3.5 million, with particularly high youth unemployment. Hollande's government has to answer to accelerated deindustrialization and an economy that is ailing with zero growth.
If you add to that the president's historically low popularity ratings, the picture is a profoundly negative one. The days following this week's attacks actually provide a moment of opportunity in which the French president could seek out words to ease the pain his compatriots are feeling. It also presents an opportunity for Hollande to stand up for France after the weak performance he has shown so far as president.
Indeed, it may be possible to transform shock over the attacks in rue Nicolas Appert into strength. One of Queen Elizabeth II's crowning moments came after the London bombings in 2005. In a remarkable speech, the Queen directed some of her remarks right at terrorists: "Those who perpetrate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life."
There's also a chance France could fall prey to right-wing populists. In a tweet on Thursday, Le Pen reiterated her demand that the country hold a referendum on the death penalty, which is banned in France, a prohibition enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Le Pen's standing was soaring in public opinion polls even prior to Wednesday's attack. Whether support for her will now rise or fall hinges on how the French public ultimately reacts to the murders.
Shows of Solidarity
The street was always the place where France sought to reassure itself and where its citizens engaged in politics. This fateful Wednesday, thousands took to the streets to defend French values. A mass demonstration was held in Paris, but numerous others were also staged in other major cities, in villages and in small towns. Organizers mobilized people using SMS text messages and social networks. In France and across Europe, people gathered under the, "Je suis Charlie" slogan. I am Charlie. The slogan could be seen on digital display boards on highways, someone tweeted a picture of a newborn baby wearing a "Charlie" arm band, others wore buttons bearing the slogan and editorial staffs of entire media organizations, including SPIEGEL, were photographed holding up "Je suis Charlie" signs in solidarity.
It has become the emblem of a country and a Continent that has no intention of allowing itself to cower in the face of terrorism. France is a proud nation that can be defiant and rebellious. And Europe, as the French would say, has character.
On Wednesday, an icy gray day, Paris was in a feverish state. It was the first day of annual winter sales, but the stores were emptier than usual in the afternoon. Special forces patrolled the department stores to protect against the threat of terror. At the bakeries, people exchanged encouraging words, wishing each other "a nice day, despite everything." Of course, they said, they would be joining the masses later at Place de la République, one of Paris' most famous squares.
In the center of the large square, a statue of Marianne, a depiction of the Goddess of Liberty, stands guard over a relief featuring the three founding principles of the French Republic -- Liberté, Égalité, Fratenité. Someone had slipped a black ribbon of mourning over Fraternité
Soldiers patrolled the capital city together with police and security checks were established at schools and at all major shopping centers and cinemas. "The daily life of the French is going to change dramatically," said one host of French news channel BFM TV.
The French are outraged by Wednesday's events, but they have remained calm. The prevailing sentiment is one of mourning and not thirst for revenge. It's almost as if the French had sensed something like this might happen one day. Now that it has, they want to maintain their composure, without showing any signs of backing down.
A New Dimension
This is, after all, an old battle that has been waged for years now between the friends and foes of freedom. In 2004, Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, on an open street in Amsterdam. The Dutch filmmaker had repeatedly attacked Islam, at times in tasteless ways, prior to his slaying. Ten years later, the attackers, dressed in black, wore bulletproof vests and carried Kalashnikovs. Although they've become more professional, the intention remains the same. France has chalked up many successes in the battle against terror, even preventing attacks on its soil. The French police and secret services have been repeatedly criticized for their at times brutal approach, but they have also been relatively effective.
But there's an altogether new dimension now, with more French youth answering the call to jihad in Syria and Iraq than in any other Western country. The authorities have been pushed to their limits. On Thursday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, "Our services have dismantled many groups and foiled plans for attacks. That is proof that we are acting. Hundreds of people are followed, dozens have been questioned, dozens have been jailed. That shows the difficulties facing our services: the number of individuals who pose a threat."
On Wednesday night, just eight kilometers north of the Place de la République, where the mourners had converged, few lights were on and only silhouettes could be seen behind the curtains in the darkness of rue Basly, the street where suspected killer Chérif Kouachi resided in the suburb of Gennevilliers. Until last Wednesday, Kouachi had resided on the fourth floor of this brick building with cacti in the windows behind a violet-colored door in Apartment 143.
As a youth, Kouachi smoked pot and drank alcohol. In 2005, he tried to go to Iraq because he wanted to join up with al-Qaida. He and his brother Saïd were born in Paris and grew up in a children's home in Rennes. Their parents, who were of Algerian origin, died when they were young. Chérif trained to be a fitness instructor and moved to Paris, where he made a living delivering pizzas. At the time, he described himself as an "occasional Muslim." Then he became acquainted with the Farid Beyettou a janitor and fanatic self-styled preacher, who recruited Chérif for the jihad.
A video filmed in the summer of 2004 by a neighborhood group shows Chérif as a young man wearing tennis shoes, light blue jeans and closely shorn hair, with a clean-shaven face. He can be seen rapping, doing his best to act cool like kids of that age do, and greeting his friend with a high-five.
'It's Good to Die a Martyr'
Police arrested Chérif in 2005 as he prepared to travel to Damascus on his way to Iraq, where he wanted to kill Americans. During his trial in 2008, he said he had been radicalized by the images of Abu Ghraib. His lawyer described him as a "loser" who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. The judge sentenced Chérif Kouachi to three years in prison, with half of the time to be served on probation. At the time, French TV station FR 3 interviewed Chérif as part of a documentary film. In it, he said, "Farid (Benyettou) told me that the scriptures offered proof of the goodness of suicide attacks. It is written in the scriptures that it's good to die a martyr."
After his release, he worked as a fish vendor at a branch of the Leclerc supermarket chain. Anti-terror authorities found themselves back on Cheríf's trail again in 2010. They arrested him because they believed he was planning to help a convicted terrorist escape from prison. Police also took notice of his brother Saïd at the time. French authorities registered the two for monitoring by intelligence agencies across Europe. Cheríf starting in 2010 and Saïd since 2011. Sources in German security circles told SPIEGEL that one of the two spent time in 2011 in Oman and has ties to al-Qaida on the Arab Peninsula.
The New York Times also reported that Saïd spent several months in 2011 at an al-Qaida training camp in Yemen. At the time, US-born hate preacher Anwar al-Awlaki had been successfully recruiting fighters from the West. Both Saïd and Cheríf had reportedly been placed on the US government's no-fly list.
Police found Saïd's ID card in the car used to flee the crime scene on Wednesday.
People on the street in Gennevilliers, including many youth, said they couldn't fathom that Chérif, a friendly young man they described as "harmless" and "normal," could have been involved in the murder of 12 people.
At midday on Thursday, Chérif's neighbor was standing in front of the suspect's violet-colored door -- Eric Badday, an older man with horn-rimmed glasses who was born in Tunisia but has lived for more than 40 years in France. As he tried to proceed, he got bombarded with questions by TV crews that had crowded in to the building. All he wanted to do was take out his trash.
Kouachi was the perfect neighbor, says Eric Badday, shaking his head and still clutching his bag of garbage. "He was honest and decent and was never loud or aggressive." In contrast to himself, Badday said, the young man frequented the mosque, but he neither wore a beard nor dressed conspicuously. "Jeans and a T-shirt, just like me," Badday says. When you think about it, Badday continues, Kouachi was almost conspicuously inconspicuous. In hindsight.
Kouachi's wife, on the other hand, was an anomaly, even in a building where many Arabs live, Badday says. She was little more than a black shadow in a hooded abaya cloak and never showed her face. "When I got on the elevator, she would step out." He says he never saw Kouachi's brother Saïd, the second suspect, here in the building. He only learned of his existence from the television.
'No Murderers Lived Here'
The sandwich seller down the street says that Chérif "was a good customer. I never noticed anything strange about him." He has a hard time believing that Kouachi once wanted to fight in Iraq and that he may have been in Syria. He demands to see the police photo once again and shakes his head. "This has always been a quiet street," he says. "No murderers lived here." Then he adds: "Until now."
In the best known video of the attack, one sees shabby, 1970s-era office buildings lining a narrow street with sidewalks on both sides, separated from the road by metal posts. At the corner of one building stands a black car, a small Citroën 3, its doors open.
The image wobbles, you can hear shots being fired, salvos. They come loud and fast, one after the other. "An automatic weapon," says a man's gasping, emotionless voice. "Pssst. Be quiet," another whispers. The image rotates and becomes unfocused. "Don't move, just don't move." The film continues as people hunch down behind chimneys. Occasionally, the camera pans across faces, pale and with wide, fearful eyes.
They are journalists from the news agency Premières Lignes, whose offices are in the same building as those of Charlie Hebdo. They fled to the roof to escape the shooting. One of them, who had been smoking a cigarette on the street in front of the door, saw two men in black with heavy, automatic weapons as they called out: "Where are the offices of Charlie Hebdo?" The assailants had trouble finding their way inside the building at first.
At 11:30 a.m., Laurent Richard, an editor at Premières Lignes, parks his scooter around the corner in the Rue Saint-Sabin. He tries to head through a small street to the big white building at Rue Nicolas Appert 6-10.
The agitated waiter of a small restaurant tells him of two heavily armed men who disappeared into number 10. He hears his colleagues who, from the roof, indicate to him that he shouldn't go inside. He turns around and waits a couple of minutes. And then he goes in.
- Part 1: The Deep Repercussions of the Charlie Hebdo Attack
- Part 2: From Smoking Pot to the Jihad
- Part 3: The Sources of Extremism
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