Terror from the Fringes Searching for Answers in the "Charlie Hebdo" Attacks
Part 3: Prison and the Third Man
But instead of being his salvation, prison became the second sinister turning point in his life, because he became even more radicalized there. In Fleury-Mérogis, a nightmarish concrete fortress and, with close to 4,000 inmates, Europe's largest prison, he joined a group of Salafists led by a man who called himself "Abou Hamza." His real name was Djamel Beghal, and he was a Franco-Algerian follower of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for planning an attack on the US Embassy in Paris in 2001. After Benyettou, Beghal was the next key figure along Chérif Kouachi's path to becoming a terrorist.
Prior to his retirement, Jean-Louis Bruguière, a judge who is now 71, headed many of the France's important counterterrorism investigations, including the one against the Buttes-Chaumont network. He says that Chérif Kouachi wasn't a particularly memorable figure, and estimates that there are roughly 100 to 200 people like Kouachi in France today.
On the other hand, Beghal, whom Bruguière had also had arrested, was at "a completely different level" -- highly intelligent, good-looking, very radical and conceited, he says. Khalil Merroun, a Muslim prison chaplain at the time, describes Beghal as confident and self-assured. "He was very well-read and polite," says Merroun. "He smiled a lot and was an unusually clever and pleasant conversational partner."
It was Beghal, Judge Bruguière says, who radicalized Chérif Kouachi. "It's a huge mistake that terrorists are locked up with ordinary petty criminals there. Prisons are overcrowded and conditions are poor, which makes the prisoners receptive to any form of radicalization." In his book "The French Intifada," historian Andrew Hussey calls these prisons "the engine room of Islamic radicalism in France." This is not solely the result of a lack of funding, he argues, but a direct consequence of the French social policy, which pays homage to equality in an almost fundamentalist way and does not tolerate diversity. The consequence, Hussey writes, is that the existence of inequality and, therefore, injustice, is simply denied. For a long time, there were no Halal meals for Muslim prisoners, says former prison chaplain Merroun, and the only prayer room in Fleury-Mérogis was a Christian chapel -- even though about 60 percent of France's prison inmates are Muslims, many with Algerian roots.
Beghal must have had an enormous influence on Chérif Kouachi, as well as on Amedy Coulibaly, who would later become the third attacker and who was also an inmate at the time. Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly became friends and exercised together every day of the seven months they spent together in prison.
Lawns and Playgrounds
In 2008, photos secretly taken by prisoners in Fleury-Mérogis sparked a scandal. They depicted rusty shower fixtures and broken windows, even in November, garbage, violence and drugs -- conditions viewed as unreasonable and uncivilized. Coulibaly was involved in taking the footage.
Coulibaly was born in Juvisy-sur-Orge on Feb. 27, 1982, the seventh child of a family from Mali, and the only boy. He grew up in La Grande Borne in Grigny, one of the country's most notorious low-income housing developments, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) south of Paris. When French architect Emile Aillaud designed the development in the late 1960s, he was convinced that he had discovered the future of human habitation. The buildings, painted in different colors, are shaped like waves, and each building number is individually designed. The development was envisioned as a city for children, with large expanses of lawn and playgrounds.
Grande Borne is a bleak environment today, with most of its residents from immigrant backgrounds. Teenagers who live there sometimes refer to themselves as "racaille," or scum, an expression then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy had used to describe banlieue youth when revolts broke out in 2005. The development symbolizes the failure of the French utopia of a republic in which everyone has the same opportunities. There is little evidence of equalité and fraternité, and many lose their liberté at an early age. The Fleury-Mérogis prison borders the municipality.
Amedy Coulibaly, nicknamed "Doly de Grigny," was already stealing things as a teenager and liked to provoke people, say social workers from the district. He slipped into a life of crime at an early age and was known as a burglar. In September 2000, when he was 18, he and his best friend were in the process of stealing scooters and loading them into a truck when Coulibaly witnessed the police shoot and kill his companion, says social worker Amar Henni, who had known Coulibaly since he was a teenager.
After his friend's death, Coulibaly was involved in muggings, for which he faced trial in 2001 and 2004. After committing an armed robbery of a bank in Orléans, he was sentenced to six years in prison and was sent to Fleury-Mérogis.
Philippe Rio, 40, who grew up in Grande Borne and is now the mayor of Grigny, watched some of his schoolmates become drug dealers and others die because they had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Gangs in the neighborhood saw the government as the enemy. Although the state provided their parents with housing and a few francs in social assistance, many believed it deprived them of any hope of social advancement. When he speaks at his former high school, Collège Jean-Vilar, which Coulibaly also attended, Rio knows what he is talking about.
On the morning after the Paris attacks, the police informed Rio that a special-forces unit had picked up Coulibaly's mother and one of his sisters for questioning. Rio has known the family for years and went to school with one of the daughters. He says that everyone in the family had managed to rise out of poverty. One of the sisters is a well known dancer on TV shows and runs a studio in the Marais neighborhood in Paris, where she teaches a dance for women known as "Booty Therapy," which is primarily focused on moving the posterior.