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.
It's a journey into the depths of French society, to children's homes, social centers and prisons, but also into the networks of radical Islamists and terrorists who have for decades been especially active in France. The three offenders were far from being lone wolves who came out of nowhere. The story of their radicalization reaches back more than 10 years. Indeed, the larger mystery is how the authorities failed to track them down prior to the attack.
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.
The Jihadists from the Park
It proved to be a fateful decision. Just four years later, on Jan. 24, 2005, police arrested Chérif Kouachi shortly before his planned trip to Iraq to join the jihad. When questioned, he told an officer with the French domestic intelligence agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, his life story. In all, Chérif was interrogated 12 times and his brother Saïd 10 times. The transcripts, along with those of others involved, describe a transformation.
Chérif Kouachi described how he initially stayed with his mother's brother in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers for a few days. But the uncle ultimately asked him to leave; after that he stayed with friends or in small hotels. For two years, he worked in markets, sold hashish and committed various robberies, until he ran into an acquaintance from the children's home, a man named Michael C.*, who put the two brothers up at his mother's apartment in low-income housing in the 19th arrondissement.
That was when he began reading books and reflecting, Chérif told his interrogators. His brother Saïd took him along to the Pré Saint Gervais mosque. "I hadn't prayed before then, because I was young and no one at the children's home had told me anything about it," he said. "I only went to the mosque on Fridays at first. It helped calm me down, which is why I started going more frequently."
In 2003, he met a man at the Adda'wa Mosque in the 19th arrondissement who would change his life: the self-proclaimed imam Farid Benyettou, who was 22 at the time and looked like a hippy, with his long hair, oversized glasses and a white-and red keffiyeh wrapped around his head. Benyettou, the son of Algerian parents, had encountered jihadist ideas at an early age. He is the brother-in-law of a prominent terrorist, the Salafist Youssef Zemmouri, who was arrested in May 1998 for allegedly planning an attack on the World Cup in France.
Benyettou publicly quarreled with imams whose sermons were too moderate for his taste, and he was banned from the mosque, whereupon he began teaching his Salafist ideology to a small group of followers in his home. His disciples included the Kouachi brothers and their friend Thameur Bouchnak. They called Benyettou "Abu Abdallah," and he made a deep impression on Chérif and the others.
'Helps Me Behave Better'
In the interrogations, Chérif Kouachi said: "I don't believe that I am a good Muslim." He said that he had tried to pray regularly, but that he wasn't always successful, especially at times when he was smoking a lot of marijuana. "I'm what you call a 'ghetto Muslim.' I get together with my girlfriend and live my life, and after that I regret my actions. Going to see Farid helps me behave better."
The interrogation transcripts show that he had little understanding of his religion or political affairs. When asked about Salafism, jihad, the conflict in the Middle East and Al-Qaida, he had little to say.
Benyettou stirred up hatred of the United States among his followers, especially in relation to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. "When the Americans attacked to drive out Saddam, I thought it was normal, because he had done bad things," said Chérif Kouachi. But when he saw how "the US soldiers humiliated the Iraqis," it made him want to go into battle himself. Beginning in late 2003, he went to see Benyettou every Saturday and Sunday.
The imam convinced the small group that armed conflict was the right approach and he touted a martyr's death as a path to paradise. Benyettou became the leader of the Buttes-Chaumont jihadist network, named after a park in the 19th arrondissement. He was a clever manipulator and was adept at inciting his followers to engage in jihad. "Farid never told us directly that we should go," said Chérif, but he quoted holy texts and Muslim scholars, and he advocated jihad. "It helped to convince me," Chérif Kouachi told his interrogators.
Boubaker al-Hakim, the first of Benyettou's pupils to go to war, was a role model for the group. Prior to the US invasion, he had traveled to Iraq to serve as a human shield against the Americans. In an interview aired on the private broadcaster RTL in March 2003, al-Hakim shouted: "Abu Abdallah, it's me! I'm in Iraq." He said that he was prepared to fight on the front lines. "Boom boom," he shouted, to imitate the sound of explosions. "We will kill all the Americans! We are mujahedeen. We want death. We want paradise!"
But al-Hakim did not attain paradise. After Saddam was overthrown, he was arrested in Syria and deported to France. He was later released and returned to Iraq, where he fought for Al-Qaida in Fallujah. He was the perfect complement to the slender intellectual Benyettou: a muscle-bound fighter who could take the men Benyettou had indoctrinated to the front. Three young men from the Buttes-Chaumont cell died in Iraq, including al-Hakim's brother. Another man lost an arm and an eye.
Chérif Kouachi initially told the French agents that he and Thameur Bouchnak had merely wanted to travel to Syria to buy goods, which they planned to resell in France at a profit. It was only in the fourth interrogation that he capitulated, saying: "I was willing to die for jihad. Today I think it was the devil who led me into temptation."
'I Didn't Want to Die There'
When the investigators asked him whether he believed that fighting the jihad in France would also be justified, he responded: "No, France is my country. I would refrain from doing that."
Kouachi and Bouchnak didn't know much about jihad, but they prepared themselves as effectively as they could, using the Buttes-Chaumont park as a training ground. They ran laps around the park to toughen their bodies for jihad and played an hour of soccer every day. They went to Internet cafés to look at Kalashnikovs and, using a drawing, they studied how to use them. Chérif Kouachi was suddenly talking about burning down Jewish shops and restaurants in Paris -- and about driving trucks filled with explosives into US military bases.
In the interrogations, however, he admitted that he had been afraid. "I kept telling myself that I wouldn't go. I didn't want to die there." But then, he said, his pride got the better of him and he decided to go, after all. "I told myself that if I caved in, the others would think I was a coward." He applied for a passport and bought a round-trip ticket to Damascus for €400 ($462). In the last week before his departure, Benyettou gave him individual instruction in jihad. "He told me about the 70 virgins and a big house in paradise."
Bouchnak and Chérif Kouachi were happy. They felt that they had been chosen and, finally, that they were special. "Until then, these young had never felt that they really belonged anywhere," says Dominique Many, the attorney who represented Bouchnak from 2005 to 2008. "Thameur told me: In France I'm always the unemployed Arab. In Tunisia, where my parents are from, they expect me to pay twice as much for everything, because I'm French."
Benyettou had given the young men a third option, Dominique Many says: To be part of the Umma, or global community of Muslims, and of the armed struggle against injustice. The imam, he adds, had cleverly identified those in the group who seemed most receptive to his indoctrination, not Säid, but Chérif Kouachi, who was easier to influence. "They thought Benyettou had chosen them because they were his best pupils," says Many, "and not, if you'll excuse me, because they were the stupidest ones."
Bouchnak and Chérif Kouachi planned to fly to Damascus together on Jan. 25, 2005, intending to use the €8,000 in cash they were taking along to buy Kalashnikovs in the Syrian capital. After that, they expected to be taken to Iraq. They were to spend their last evening before the trip at Benyettou's apartment. Instead, they were arrested that evening. Before the cops came to get him, Chérif panicked and threw his mobile phone onto the Metro tracks.
He later confessed to his attorney that he was relieved to have been arrested. Although the idea of embarking on jihad had awakened his desire for something more meaningful in life, he didn't want to die. Chérif Kouachi was charged with forming a terrorist organization and taken into pre-trial detention. His brother Säid, also a member of Benyettou's circle, remained at large. During all the interrogations, he consistently claimed that he had been unaware of his brother's plans.
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.
When Chérif Kouachi was released on parole in October 2006, he seemed sad and serious, a hardened and withdrawn man. He found a job at the fish counter in a supermarket. And he found a wife: Izzana Hamyd, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, two years his senior, who grew up in Charleville-Mézières, near the Belgian border. She is a devout Muslim and has been wearing a headscarf since she was 15. The couple was married in March 2008, with Chérif's brother Saïd serving as his best man.
At the time, he was on trial for his involvement in the jihadist cell from the 19th arrondissement. In television footage, he is shown wearing a hoodie as he strides out of the courtroom. Speaking into the microphones, he insists that he and his friend Thameur are innocent. Then he shouts at the journalists: "And by the way, Benyettou didn't do anything!"
Attorney Dominique Many relates an anecdote that illustrates how radicalized Chérif had become. In the trial, the defendants had refused to stand up in front of the female judge and had to be forced to stand up by police officers. Chérif Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison, with half of the sentence to be served on probation. But his sentenced was commuted to time served and he was released.
The newlyweds traveled to Mecca. After that, Hamyd disappeared completely behind black veils, left her job at a daycare center and began praying five times a day. The couple that lived next to them in Gennevilliers say they never saw her face. When Hamyd encountered a man in front of the elevator, she would take the stairs instead. But Chérif Kouachi attracted little attention, with neighbors describing him as polite, ordinary and not overly sophisticated.
Saïd Kouachi also continued to seek refuge in Islam. In 2007, he began a job as an "ambassador for recycling" with the city of Paris. But his strict interpretation of his religion increasingly became an obstacle at work. He refused to shake hands with women and interrupted his work to pray.
Even as Chérif Kouachi led a seemingly normal life, he continued to meet with his former fellow prison inmate, Coulibaly. Occasionally, he would invite Coulibaly and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, for a visit. The women would typically spend their time chatting in the kitchen. On some weekends, the two couples drove out to the country to visit a friend from their prison days, Djamel Beghal, who was under house arrest.
Religious Files and Child Pornography
The three men were under close surveillance by the authorities, who suspected that they were plotting to liberate the convicted terrorist Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem, a member of the Algerian terrorist group GIA and one of the masterminds of a series attacks on the Paris suburban train system in 1995, from prison.
The suspicions led to the arrests of Chérif and Coulibaly in May 2010. According to a court document, when police searched their apartments, they found a bizarre mixture of religious files and child pornography on their computers -- though it is unclear whether the files were intended to distract investigators from their actual plans. The officers also discovered photos taken during a visit with Beghal in April 2010, in which Coulibaly and Boumeddiene are shown holding a crossbow. They also found 240 rounds of ammunition for a Kalashnikov; Coulibaly told the police that he was trying to sell the ammunition.
During subsequent questioning, Chérif Kouachi was no longer as forthcoming and chatty as he had been in the 2005 interrogations. "I have nothing to say," he told his interrogators. The police had no proof that he had committed a crime.
On July 25, 2011, Saïd Kouachi traveled to Oman and then to Yemen, presumably in the company of another French citizen. The Yemeni authorities claim that it was his brother Chérif, but Chérif wouldn't have been permitted to leave France at the time, because he was under investigation. In an interview with the BFM TV station a few hours before his death, Chérif Kouachi said that he had received funding from Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who had recruited terrorists for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and had planned attacks in the West, including a failed attack by the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Saïd Kouachi returned to Paris three weeks later, unchallenged by French authorities. According to French media reports, only the Americans had him under surveillance, though they informed their French counterparts about his trip in November of the same year.
'You Are All Infidels'
At least one of the two brothers presumably met with Awlaki, and received a few days of weapons training. Despite a video released on Wednesday, in which a leading al-Qaida sheikh claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, German and American counterterrorism officials say that the brothers were given specific targets or a specific mission while in Yemen. Whether true or not, it comes as no surprise that al-Qaida would claim responsibility for the attack. The group has, after all, been overshadowed by Islamic State in recent years.
While the Kouachis may have received military training and religious indoctrination in Yemen, and potential targets may even have been discussed, it is more likely, the officials say, that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not centrally controlled. The fact that al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone attack shortly after the brothers visited Yemen in September 2011 supports this theory.
Back in Gennevilliers, Chérif continued to play soccer, and in the evening he would sometimes go to the "Sahara" food stall in his street to order a chicken sandwich with French fries. When his wife went along, she would always wait outside the door.
Chérif Kouachi attracted little notice at the mosque, which he only visited occasionally, says the imam, Mohammed Benali. He only knew of Chérif and his brother Saïd, he says, because of an incident in the spring of 2012. It was shortly before the presidential election and the imam had called upon his congregants to go and vote. Suddenly Saïd Kouachi stood up and said that the imam had no right to ask his congregation to do something like that. "You are all infidels," he shouted before being escorted out of the mosque by security, says Benali.
The case against Chérif Kouachi was closed in July 2013, and he and his brother ultimately disappeared from the authorities' radar. The surveillance of Chérif Kouachi was terminated in late 2013 and that of his brother, Saïd Kouachi, in June 2014, according to French media reports.
The wives of Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly apparently spoke with each other by phone some 500 times since then. Authorities now believe the men may actually have been using their wives' phones. How could this fatal chain of mistakes and omissions by French authorities have occurred? "A death toll of 17 means mistakes were made," French Premier Manuel Valls conceded shortly after the attacks, and promised to create 500 new positions in the domestic intelligence agency.
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.