Terror from the Fringes Searching for Answers in the "Charlie Hebdo" Attacks
How did three, seemingly normal sons of immigrant families turn into radicalized and vicious murderers? SPIEGEL went to Paris to find out. The resulting image is one of an identity search gone horribly wrong.
They were unremarkable. Friendly. That, at least, is how neighbors describe the brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. "Really nice boys," is how the director of the children's home where they grew up remembers them. In their closed Facebook group, former residents of the home comfort each other: "I weep this evening," writes one woman. "I weep for my friends, and I weep for the boys I once knew. I weep for the people."
Can you ever truly know a person? People in the neighborhood where the Paris terrorists lived are filled with incomprehension, and people who were close to them are horrified. Even the wives of the two brothers say they knew nothing of their plans.
Chérif Kouachi was not a person you would remember, says the judge who headed the first investigation against him a decade ago. Most people say that his brother Saïd was even less memorable. But these two unassuming men, together with accomplice Amedy Coulibaly, managed to commit a double attack that, despite its primitive execution, has had a global impact.
Seventeen people died in the Paris attacks -- the massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the hostage crisis at Hyper Cacher, a Jewish supermarket. It was an assault on free speech and an attack on Jews that touched people around the world. But while the millions of people who reaffirmed their faith in the French republic by marching a week ago on Sunday created a powerful image, they also exposed a deep divide in French society.
It also raised a number of questions that must be addressed if France is going to approach an explanation for the attack. Is it a problem of angry young men? Is it a problem of society? Or is the issue one of a misguided interpretation of Islam, one that provides a haven for men who have lost their way, that is the fundamental problem?
In its search for answers, SPIEGEL explored the backgrounds of the key figures in these attacks. The journey into their pasts led to the apartments where the Kouachis lived in Gennevilliers, near Paris, and in Reims, and to the closed doors of their relatives in Charleville-Mézières at the Belgian border. But it also led to their distraught former caregivers in the provinces, people who are unable to comprehend what happened to their former charges. It led to social workers and imams in the neighborhood where Amedy Coulibaly used to live, and to a friend of his wife Hayat Boumeddiene. SPIEGEL also had access to more than 100 pages of interrogation reports and court files.
The attacks cannot be explained by these inquiries, much less justified. Still, it is important to address the question of why three adolescents who seemed quite normal and promising became terrorists.
Growing Up in the Corrèze
A narrow country road winds through the hills to Treignac, a village of 1,400 residents in the Limousin region, 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Paris. Weathered stone houses line the narrow streets and lanes of the idyllic town, which is surrounded by forests and cow pastures. This is where Chérif and Saïd Kouachi spent six years of their childhood, from 1994 to 2000, in a children's home run by the Claude Pompidou Foundation. The home is located on a large estate with an extensive garden and a palace-like administrative building. At the time, the facility housed about 70 children aged 7 to 18.
For years, Suzanne* was the child care worker responsible for Chérif Kouachi. She is willing to talk, but does not want her real name revealed. "I feel guilty," she says. She hasn't been sleeping well for days, and has suffered anxiety attacks. When she first heard the names of the two killers -- men she had seen grow up -- she thought there must have been a mistake.
But when she saw the wanted posters for the two men, she knew. Nothing in their faces reminded her of the teenagers she once knew -- except their eyes. "What a nightmare," she says.
Suzanne, who is wearing a velvet blazer and large earrings, keeps breaking out in tears. She has pulled out old photos of a group vacation to the Mediterranean: Chérif with his boyish smile, as he hugs Suzanne. Chérif jumping into the pool, two fingers held up in the V for victory sign, grinning broadly. "They were good kids," she says.
She was responsible for Chérif, who was her favorite. "I couldn't be upset with him, no matter what he had done," she says. She quickly adds that he never did anything particularly bad, just the usual silly boyish pranks.
Patrick Fournier, the director of the home, is sitting in his office. Copies of the Kouachi brothers' files are on his desk. The local police department confiscated the original files as soon as the attackers' identities were revealed. Fournier, 57, has been working at the home as an educator for 30 years.
A Shock to the Boys
The brothers were born in Paris and spent their childhood on Rue d'Aubervilliers in the 19th arrondissement, a low-income district in the northeastern part of the city, a neighborhood to which they would later return. According to police records, the older brother Saïd was born on Sept. 7, 1980, and Chérif was born on Nov. 29, 1982. They have two other siblings, Aïcha and Chabane.
The parents are from Constantine, a city in Algeria. The father, Mokhtar, died of cancer in 1990, and the mother later had another daughter with another man. She felt overwhelmed by the many children, says the home director. That was when the brothers' grades began to decline, and they seemed neglected. The youth welfare office in Paris sent the four eldest siblings to the children's home in Treignac, where they arrived on Oct. 3, 1994. The mother frequently spoke with the children by phone, but she never visited. Her sudden death in January 1995 came as a shock to the boys, says home director Fournier.
Saïd and Chérif Kouachi were not youths with behavioral problems. Chérif was like a ray of sunshine at the home, says Fournier, and he was also a very good soccer player. He played with a local club, AS Chamberet, in a town eight kilometers away. Team photos including Chérif Kouachi are still hanging on the wood-paneled walls of the team clubhouse.
Pascal Fargetas, 55, a bear of a man, was Chérif Kouachi's coach for two years. He says that Chérif never missed a training session or a match. He was filled with boundless enthusiasm, even if it was raining or snowing. And, Fargetas adds, he had real talent, one of the best right-wingers he has ever coached.
"Now there's all this talk about religion," he says. "Soccer was his religion." Chérif took soccer very seriously, says Fargetas, but he also smoked pot, had girlfriends and liked to party.
Saïd Kouachi, on the other hand, was much more interested in going to the movies than playing soccer. He was quieter and more serious than his brother. He had more trouble in school, was placed in a remedial class and needed tutoring in almost all subjects. But he too was ambitious. At 18, he applied for an extension of his stay in Treignac so that he could complete a training program as a cook, which he did successfully.
When Chérif finished high school and began a training program as an electrical mechanic, he moved to a boarding school in St. Junien 80 kilometers away, returning to Treignac every weekend to play for the soccer club. But his dream of becoming a professional came to nothing when no major clubs showed any interest in him. As an adult, he apparently long regretted that he didn't manage to become a professional player.
Chérif decided to return to Paris, despite his coach's efforts to convince him to stay. "Going to Paris was a stupid idea," says Fargetas, with a frown. "He was the captain here, and he should have stayed."
His best friend, the son of refugees from Ethiopia, also tried to convince Chérif to stay in Treignac but was unsuccessful. Chérif had had enough of the idyllic rural life, says the friend, who does not want to be named. Chérif wanted to go to Paris to try his luck with professional clubs, he adds. In 2000, Chérif moved to Paris with his brother.
- Part 1: Searching for Answers in the "Charlie Hebdo" Attacks
- Part 2: The Jihadists from the Park
- Part 3: Prison and the Third Man
- Part 4: False Normality
- Part 5: The Bewilderment of the Terrorists' Friends