Terror from the Fringes Searching for Answers in the "Charlie Hebdo" Attacks

REUTERS

By SPIEGEL Staff

Part 5: The Bewilderment of the Terrorists' Friends


The last time Yasmin* saw her friend Hayat Boumeddiene was in October 2014. Boumeddiene had invited her to a dinner party at her father's apartment in a gloomy district in southeastern Paris to celebrate her return from a pilgrimage to Mecca with Coulibaly. "Hayat laughed a lot and talked enthusiastically about her trip," says Yasmin. She had brought along presents for all her guests and served couscous, cake and tea. There were about 15 guests at the party. "Hayat was the same as always," says Yasmin, "a cheerful, happy person who loved life."

Yasmin has known Boumeddiene since she was seven and the two attended elementary school together. Hayat had lost her mother and grew up with various foster families. Yasmin's path was a different one; she attended university and now has a well-paid office job -- despite her Arab name and her banlieu childhood.

When Yasmin saw wanted-photos of her friend in every newspaper, she was shocked. "I can't believe that she was involved in something like this. I can only speculate that her husband dragged her into this."

A mutual acquaintance had introduced Boumeddiene and Coulibaly in 2007. They traveled around the world, to Crete, the Dominican Republic and Malaysia. Snapshots from the days when they were newly in love show Boumeddiene wearing a bikini, wrapped in a tight embrace with Coulibaly on the beach.

When Boumeddiene began wearing a headscarf in 2009, the year the couple got married, she lost her job in a bakery. She later began wearing a full veil. But Yasmin says that she never felt that her friend was a fundamentalist. "She was sad when Amedy was sent to prison," says Yasmin. Apparently Boumeddiene's faith helped her survive.

In March 2014, Coulibaly and Boumeddiene moved into a flat in Fontenay-aux-Roses, a suburban municipality just south of Paris, where they lived in a subsidized apartment in Rue Max Dormoy. Neighbors there say they were discreet and friendly. Social worker Amar Henni says he met Coulibaly in a café one week prior to the attack and that Coulibaly said he was looking for work. Just hours before the Charlie Hebdo attack, a jogger was shot in a park next to Coulibaly's home. Police linked the shell casings to a pistol Coulibaly later used during the attack on the kosher supermarket at Porte des Vicennes.

Yasmin cannot explain why her friend fled to Turkey and on to Syria, accompanied by Medhi Sabry Belhoucine, a man whose brother reportedly has ties to Afghan militants. She says that she cannot rule out the possibility that Boumeddiene knew about Coulibaly's terrorist plot because the two were extremely close. "He must have told her about it. Maybe she tried to dissuade him and left when she realized that he wouldn't budge." But French news agency AFP has since reported that Coulibaly, Boumeddiene and four others, including the Belhoucine brothers, had traveled to Madrid a couple of days before the attack. This is where Boumeddiene and her travel companion boarded their flight to Istanbul.

Following the supermarket attack, a video surfaced in which Coulibaly claims responsibility for the murder of the female police officer and for the attack itself. In it, he expresses his loyalty to the Islamic State terrorist group. In a subsequent address, a senior Islamic State leader praised Coulibaly's deed, but did not claim responsibility for it. Coulibaly said he "coordinated" his attack with the Kouachi brothers. Whether he had actual ties to Islamic State is not yet clear.

The Lost Ones of the Croix-Rouge

In Croix-Rouge, a neighborhood in the northeastern French city of Reims, giant apartment buildings jut into the gray January sky. Many of the buildings are completely dilapidated, but the one in which the Kouachi family lived was recently renovated. Saïd Kouachi had apparently lived there with his wife and their two young children for about a year and a half, in apartment C on the second floor. A sheet of brown plywood has been nailed to the front door, which the police broke down.

There are more apartment buildings across the street. A light-colored door in an underpass through one of the buildings leads to a prayer room, where about 30 worshippers gathered last Saturday afternoon. "Yes, he was here a lot," says an older man, referring to Saïd Kouachi. "He came, prayed and left again."

The local imam is Abdul-Hamid al-Khalifa, 57, and he too was unable to become close to Saïd. The only thing he knows about him is that he briefly ran a shop nearby, in which he is said to have sold Korans, among other things. Saïd remains the great unknown of the trio.

The imam condemns the Paris attacks. "Our religion does not condone violence. By committing this act, they threatened security in this country -- including our security," he says. Of course the conditions are difficult in Croix-Rouge, says Khalifa. "But I know many young men who simply don't want to work. I was an engineer in Syria, but here I work at the market in the morning and in my shop in the afternoon."

Young men should make more of an effort, he says. "Instead, they hang around, and they don't even come to Friday prayers. They are lost. And that makes them easy to manipulate."

The lost ones of Croix-Rouge, the young men Khalifa was referring to, congregate in a café with bright green walls and two rooms. Coffee is served in one room, and men with dilated pupils stumble out of the other room. Many are very young, and they have shaved patterns into their beards. "Off to Syria, off to battle," one of them shouts, raising his fist. The others howl.

These young men have concocted their own conspiracy theories. The Kouachis were already dead before the attacks, they say. The fact that one of them left his identification card in the getaway car after the attack was "a red herring, planted deliberately." A tall, bearded man says: "I'm glad that those 'Charlie' people are dead."

The Hospital Nurse

The police have launched 70 investigations against individuals who praised the attack in social networks. One of them is anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, a hero of the banlieu youth, who wrote: "I am Charlie Coulibaly."

One of those who vigorously condemned the attacks, however, was surprising: Farid Benyettou, the radical imam who indoctrinated the Kouachi brothers. He first told the daily newspaper Le Figaro that he "absolutely disapproved" of what had happened. The newspaper reported that he had pulled a "Je suis Charlie" button out of his pocket during the interview.

Benyettou was sentenced to six years in prison in 2008 for "criminal ties to a terrorist organization." When he was released in 2011, he began a training program as a nurse at the Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where he most recently worked as an intern in the emergency room. Ironically, it was the same hospital where some of the wounded from the Paris attacks were treated.

The hospital promptly removed Benyettou from the schedule. In the ensuing days, he could not be found in the apartment he shares with his mother in a high-rise building in the 19th arrondissement, next to the town hall. When SPIEGEL finally reached Benyettou on his mobile phone on Thursday afternoon, he said that he was unwilling to meet with reporters because he was studying for an examination. Once again, he distanced himself from the Kouachis, saying: "These actions are criminal and barbaric. Islam condemns the attacks."

Benyettou says that his role in the jihadist network from the 19th arrondissement has been vastly exaggerated. In fact, he says, he was opposed to jihad at the time. "When pupils came to me in the past and asked if they should go to Iraq, I told them: No!" he claims. "Jihad wasn't even an issue" in his lessons, he says. This contradicts everything Chérif Kouachi and other pupils told the police at the time.

Benyettou does admit, however, that Chérif Kouachi had recently paid him several surprise visits to talk to him. Kouachi, he says, was "very limited" when it came to religion, and he had only wanted to talk about combat.

Benyettou, now 33, has almost completed his training, but he has no prospects of securing a job at the Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital. Because of this criminal record, he is barred from entering public service.

So why did he complete the nursing program in the first place? Was it to serve in Syria? That is what some suspect, including Judge Bruguière, who conducted the past investigation against Benyettou and now says: "There is no such thing as a de-radicalization."

When asked what he intends to do with his training, Benyettou says he isn't exactly sure yet.

By Holger Dambeck, Georg Diez, Björn Hengst, Julia Amalia Heyer, Mathieu von Rohr, Simone Salden, Samiha Shafy, Holger Stark, Petra Truckendanner and Antje Windmann

*Real names are known to SPIEGEL editors. They have been changed in the story to protect the identity of the sources.

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mervynsullivan 01/20/2015
1. Searching for answers?
When the policy of multiculturalism was adopted in Europe and Britain, it sent a message to migrants - when you come to our countries, you can keep your cultures and practices, your languages, your dress style, etc etc. It sent a message that migrants need not adopt the ways of their new country... the European citizens will be the ones to adapt to their cultures and foreign ways. And now everyone is wondering why so many migrants have not assimilated into the European way, and why these people feel alienated and disenfranchised? It's all due to the failed policy of multiculturalism. What should have happened is not multiculturalism but rather the encouragement of a multiracial monoculture. In other words, if someone migrates to France, it should be an obligation for that person to quickly adopt and adapt to the French way, and leave all the baggage of their mother-country behind.
brian.elliot.58 01/20/2015
2. Answers?
Why is this difficult to work out. You allow someone to be brought up in a country, be it France/Germany/UK and call them cidizens, but in reality you never accept them, why curly hair, bit darker, just not the same as you. Perceptions, at school they taught,some people live in the desert, some people have big noses and lend money, some people grew up in jungles and were slaves. Any wonder our grasp of life is twisted
xanthangum 01/20/2015
3. Religion and National Neglect Are To Blame
France, like many Western countries, need to pay more attention to the young immigrants or children of immigrants. They won't be assimilated if they are not made to feel welcome. Since religion plays such a big role, I suggest the government provide alternatives. Why not create a secular movement in the form of clubs and meeting places for young people to socialize and feel a part of? Fund it properly and make it nation-wide.
Inglenda2 01/20/2015
4. This Islam as it was formerly practised
In Europe we have grown used to the very mild form of Euro-Islam. A style of Islam which is practised in countries where Moslems are a small minority and the religion has no set roots. The world out side our complaisant bubble named Europe is quite different. There, the question of a misguided interpretation of Islam, certainly exists and has continuously led to violence. We, or at least our leaders, only seem to wake up when it is too late. The killings which go on around the world, (whether out of political, national or religious reasons), do not seem to disturb us at all, as long as we are not the targets. Had a few of the people, who love to tell us what we should think, taken the trouble to read about the life of Mr. Kutam, later known as the prophet Muhammad, we would not now be faced with the damn silly questions being asked in German talk-shows. However, it is not only in the name of Islam that killings take place, Russia, Israel, the UK and USA all take part in targeted killings, so the answer is not just one required from Moslems.
Pedropackman 01/21/2015
5. Charlie Hebno
I believe we need to think a little and remember that as I write US drones are seeking out so called enemies of America but most of the casualties are still women and children. With unwavering US support the Israelis still apparently seek to annex the so called West Bank where the Palestinian people are treated even more harshly, tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed by US French and British air strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria, the horror of the prison of Guantanamo with its ongoing torture continues... I could go on. Of course many young Muslim men are angry and until US, Britain and France reach out and seek justice in the middle east, more random violent acts are inevitable.
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