French Tragedy

The massacre of twelve journalists, cartoonists and policemen at the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two Algerian-French Muslim gunmen firing Kalashnikov assault rifles on January 7, 2015 was a terrible tragedy. It was followed by further tragedy the next day, when an African-French Muslim gunman murdered a young French policewoman, and on January 9, when the same gunman stormed a French Jewish supermarket and killed four hostages before being killed himself. The Charlie Hebdo murderers were also killed that same day. 

Like all human affairs, such tragedies have numerous causes at the same time. In order to understand what caused this terrible tragedy one would need to consider numerous psychological processes, both individual and collective: the life histories of the two assassins, their fraternal relationship, the relationship of French society with its Muslim minority, the repeated anti-Muslim provocations of the journalists and cartoonists involved, the relations between Muslims and Jews in France, the effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the French Muslims, among many others.

I shall first cite the known facts and then follow up with some psychological reflections. An important caveat, however, is in order: please do not confuse explaining and understanding with excusing, justifying, or forgiving.


The Charlie Hebdo murderers of January 7 were two French-born Algerian-French brothers, the thirty-four-year-old brother, Saïd Kouachi (born 1980) and his thirty-two-year-old brother Chérif (born 1982). They had been driven by their nineteen-year-old friend Hamyd Mourad. Oddly enough, Saïd Kouachi “accidentally” left his French identity card in the getaway car, which was captured by the French police after Mourad turned himself in.

The two brothers had had a history of Islamic terrorist activity, including fighting the U.S. with Al-Qaeda forces in Syria and Iraq and terrorist acts in France. They had both been orphaned in their childhood. Here are the police mug shots of the Kouachi brothers:

The Kouachi brothers

On Thursday, January 8, Amedy Coulibaly, a thirty-two-year-old French-born black African Muslim gunman, the son of Muslim immigrants from Mali, murdered a twenty-five-year-old African-French policewoman named Clarissa Jean-Philippe in the southern Paris suburb of Montrouge. Coulibaly was a friend of the Kouachi brothers. Born in 1982, he was the seventh child and only son among his parents’ ten children. He had grown up in a poor immigrant neighborhood of the southern Paris suburb of Grigny. He had been committing crimes since age seventeen and had been condemned to prison terms since he was nineteen. He had dealt in drugs as well. At the age of twenty-two he was convicted of armed robbery and condemned to six years in prison, where he became an Islamic fanatic. Once out of prison, he worked for the Coca Cola plant in Grigny, concealing his Islamic activities.

In 2009 Coulibaly had been one of ten French trainees received in the Elysée palace by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who had initiated the system of formation en alternance, under which French enterprises hired young men and trained them on the job. That year the twenty-seven-year-old Malian married his twenty-one-year-old Algerian girlfriend, Hayat Boumedienne, an Islamist fanatic like himself, in a Muslim religious ceremony, but without the civil marriage ceremony required by French law. Amedy and Hayat lived in the suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses, southwest of Paris. Like the Kouachi brothers, Hayat Boumedienne was an orphan ;she had lost her mother when she was eight years old. Like Amedy, she seems to have begun slipping into crime, violence and terror during her adolescence. Here are the police mug shots of Hayat and Amedy:

Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat BoumedienneAmedy Coulibaly had been among the fourteen persons arrested in 2010 for having helped the attempted escape from prison of the Algerian Islamist terrorist Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem (born 1968), a former member of the murderous Algerian terrorist Groupe islamique armée. Belkacem, also known as Omar Allaoui, had taken part in the wave of terror attacks in 1995; seven years later, in 2002 he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for his attack on a Réseau Express Régional rapid transit station near the Parisian Musée d’Orsay. He was incarcerated in the Maison centrale de Clairvaux. In 2010 he attempted to escape from prison, aided by Amedy Coulibaly, Chérif Kouachi, and twelve other people.

In 2013 Coulibaly had been re-arrested, tried, found guilty, and condemned to another five years in prison. He was placed under parole and released on March 4, 2014, however, wearing an electronic bracelet until May 15, the end of his prison term; in August he and Hayat approached a  Jewish school in Paris with the intention of killing Jews, but left without incident when the security guards turned them away (some sources have Coulibaly stay in prison until as late as November 2014).

On Friday, January 9, 2015 the French anti-terror police tracked down the two Charlie Hebdo murderers in Dammartin-en-Goële, northeast of Paris. Time magazine reported that “in what seemed like a last act of desperation, the prime suspects in Wednesday’s attack in Paris fired shots at French police as the massive dragnet closed on them and holed up in a factory northeast of the city, close to Charles de Gaulle Airport, with at least one hostage. Officials said they had made contact with the gunmen who expressed their desire to die as martyrs.” In fact, the “factory” was a print shop in Dammartin, and the “hostage” was Lilian Lepère, the twenty-six-year-old son of the print-shop owner, who hid in a cardboard box under the kitchen sink in the second-floor restaurant for eight and a half hours, sending the police text messages about the fugitives’ actions from his cell phone, despite his terror.

The Kouachi brothers had threatened to kill the print-shop manager, Michel Catalano; he kept his cool, bandaged the wounds of Saïd Kouachi, made the brothers coffee, and was released, leaving Lilian hiding with his cell phone on the second floor, unbeknownst to the murderers. Lilian’s text messages were at times confused due to his terror of being discovered and killed. French officials had established telephone contact with the brothers in order to negotiate the safe evacuation of a school near the print-shop building where the men were holed up. Police helicopters hovered over the print shop building, with sharpshooters aboard aiming their rifles at the building. Finally, the anti-terror police stormed the print shop and the two brothers were killed by the policemen. Lilian Lepère and Michel Catalano instantly became French national heroes. Here are their photographs:

Lilian Lepère Michel Catalano

On Friday, January 9, During the confrontation between the police and the Kouachi brothers in Dammartin, their Malian friend and accomplice Amedy Coulibaly stormed a kosher Jewish supermarket named Hyper Cacher near the Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris, brandishing his Kalashnikov assault rifle. The shop was full of Jewish customers buying provisions for the Jewish Sabbath the following day. During the melee that ensued, Coulibaly killed four customers and took many others hostage, threatening to kill them as well if the police killed the Kouachi brothers. Five hostages managed to hide in the supermarket’s cold room. Mercifully, they were saved by another young Malian, Lassana Bathily, who closed the cold-room door and turned off the electricity in the cold room, enabling the hostages to survive. Bathily had been living illegally in France for nine years. After the incident, President François Hollande made him a French citizen and conferred official honors upon him. Here is a photograph of Lassana Bathily:

Lassana Bathily

Like the Kouachi brothers, Coulibaly was killed when the police stormed the Hyper Cacher as he knelt in Muslim prayer facing toward Mecca. The police assault at the Porte de Vincennes was simultaneous with the one in Dammartin; the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were killed at the same time. The timing was decided by François Hollande, the president of France. Tragically, however, Coulibaly had already killed four hostages and had severely wounded. several others. Fifteen hostages managed to escape. The police were hunting for Coulibaly’s twenty-six-year-old Algerian wife, companion and accomplice, Hayat Boumedienne, but she had already left France for Syria (via Spain and Turkey) a week earlier, accompanied by another French Muslim gunman, to join the Islamic State forces fighting the U.S. and France. 

Coulibaly’s Jewish victims, who, like most other French Jews, were of North African descent, were the twenty-one-year-old Yoav Hattab, the twenty-two-year-old Yohan Cohen , the fortyish Philippe Braham and the sixtyish François-Michel Saada. Yohan Cohen had tried to grab the attacker’s assault rifle and wrest it from him, but Coulibaly had overpowered him and shot him in the head. Here are the photos of the four victims, who were later buried in Israel: 

The four victims of the Hyper CacherThe Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly had had an arsenal of weapons and had set up booby traps. The police discovered a loaded M82 rocket launcher, ten smoke grenades, two Kalashnikov assault rifles and two automatic pistols. The bomb-disposal specialists found a grenade on the body of one of the terrorists, which had been set up as a trap. Coulibaly had attacked police forces with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and with a Skorpion military pistol. After he was shot and killed, police found two Russian-made Tokarev pistols, two machine guns, a bullet-proof vest and ammunition in the Hyper Cacher.

There had been frequent communications between the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly; Chérif Kouachi’s wife, Izzana Hamyd, had called Amedy Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumedienne, over five hundred times in the past year alone.

From the Hyper Cacher, Coulibaly had called a French TV station to claim allegiance to the Islamic State, rather than to its rival, Al Qaeda, saying that he wanted to defend the Palestinians and kill the Jews. He also said he had planned the attacks with the Kouachi brothers, and police confirmed that they were all members of the same Islamist group in northeastern Paris. Strangely enough, Coulibaly had “accidentally” failed to hang up after talking to the TV journalist, which left his telephone’s microphone live and enabled the police to hear everything that was going on inside the supermarket. It later turned out that Coulibaly had joined the Islamic State organization two weeks before the tragic events.

Chérif Kouachi told the French BFMTV television station shortly before his death that he had been sent and funded by Al Qaeda. The president of France, François Hollande, warned that the danger to France, home to the European Union’s largest communities of both Muslims and Jews, was not over yet. A few weeks later, similar murders were committed in the Danish capital of Copenhagen,

The Islamist terror cell that both Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers had belonged to was called Les Buttes-Chaumont after the park in the 19th arrondissement of northeastern Paris where this group of radical Muslims had met and trained. It had been headed by the fiery Algerian-French Muslim Arab preacher Farid Benyettou (born 1981). It had been broken up by the French police in 2005, after Chérif Kouachi was arrested just before boarding a plane for Iraq to join Al-Qaeda. The Buttes-Chaumont trial lasted until 2008. Farid Benyettou had been jailed alongside Chérif Kouachi. The latter, however, had only been sentenced to three years in prison, and was soon released, whereas Benyettou had been sentenced to six years and remained in prison until 2011. Here is an image of Farid Benyettou:

Farid Benyettou

Chérif Kouachi had been radicalized by Benyettou. The latter, a former janitor and criminal who is now a reformed hospitable nurse, had told Chérif that the Muslim scriptures offered proof of the goodness of suicide attacks and of being a shaheed. From 2004 to 2006 the Buttes-Chaumont had been sending recruits to wage jihad (holy war) in the ranks of Al-Qaeda against the Americans in Iraq; it had been dismantled by the French authorities in 2005 but later reactivated. The group’s main aim was to send its members to fight the U.S. coalition forces in Iraq; it also had connections to Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Other members of the Buttes-Chaumont had been captured or killed by U.S. forces in Iraq, while still others were detained in Syria before being sent back to France. Two of them had been killed in a suicide attack in Iraq; a third was alleged to have helped pay for men to go to fight in Iraq. A statement sent to the Associated Press from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said “the leadership of AQAP directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully.” The statement said that the attack, which had killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, was intended as “revenge for the honor” of the Prophet Muhammad, whose  depiction is forbidden by Islamic tradition, after the magazine had repeatedly mocked him in its cartoons.


This story is so tragic and strange at the same time that many psychological questions obviously arise. Here are some of them:

* Why did the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and of other French newspapers so violently insult, attack and mock the Muslim prophet Muhammad, who is so sacred to Muslims?

* Why, of all the offended Muslims in France, was it the two Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly who went on this murderous rampage? The massacre was meticulously and “professionally” planned by the Kouachi brothers, as well by Amedy Coulibaly.

* Why, then, just as his brother Chérif had “accidentally” caused his own arrest in early 2005, did Saïd Kouachi “accidentally” leave his ID in the car, thus giving away his identity and inviting the police to track him and his brother down and to kill them? 

* Was it an unconscious suicide and fratricide at the same time?

* Why did Coulibaly “accidentally” leave his cell-phone microphone live after calling the French TV station, thus enabling the police to know when he knelt down for his Muslim prayer, to storm the Hyper Cacher at that time and to kill him?

* Was the murderous rage of the two Kouachi brothers unconsciously “displaced” or “transferred” from the parents who had abandoned them to the French journalists, cartoonists and police who had “humiliated” their religion?

* Why had Coulibaly switched his allegiance from Al Qaeda to the Islamic State after many years of belonging to the former?

As one cannot hope to answer these questions without a thoroughgoing biographical study of the assassins, the journalists have taken a shot at one. On January 17 the Romanian-born American journalist Rukmini Maria Callimachi and her colleague Jim Yardley published their biographical investigation of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi in The New York Times (see On February 13 the French journalist Marion Van Renterghem, who had interviewed every person she could find who had known the Kouachi brothers, published her own investigation in Le Monde (see I shall summarize their findings and add my own observations.

An Orphan’s Childhood

The Kouachi brothers’ parents, Mokhtar and Freiha Kouachi, had immigrated from Algeria to France along with millions of other Algerian Muslim Arabs. Saïd and Chérif Kouachi had three siblings: a sister, Aïcha, born in 1981, between Saïd and Chérif; a kid sister, Salima, born in 1988; and a kid brother, Chabanne, born in 1989.

The father, Mokhtar Kouachi, died in 1991, when Saïd was eleven years old and Chérif nine. This traumatic loss affected the entire life of the widow and her children. Their father had abandoned them by dying.

The bereaved mother, Freiha, could not mourn her devastating loss and became depressed. She was left to take care of her five children on her own. They lived in a small rent-controlled apartment in a high-rise housing project in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, one of the poorest of the twenty districts of the city, on the wrong side of the tracks. “A life of misery and make-do in which alcohol did not solve anything,” wrote the French journalist.

In October 1994, when Saïd was fourteen and Chérif twelve, their mother Freiha gave up on them. She handed them over to the Aide sociale à l’enfance (social aid for childhood), which placed them in the Centre des Monédières of the Claude Pompidou Foundation, an MECS (home for children of social character), in Treignac, a little town in the Corrèze département, in the Massif central mountain range of south-central France.

After being abandoned by their father, the adolescent Saïd and Chérif  were enraged at their depressed mother for her additional rejection of them. For five months they were regularly taken to Paris to visit their “ailing but loving” mother.

In early 1995 the unhappy mother, Freiha, died as well, an apparent suicide. This was the final abandonment. Deeply traumatized, enraged, feeling betrayed, with no outlet for their violent feelings, Saïd and Chérif no longer had any home but La Fonda, their affectionate abbreviation for the feminine La Fondation. After losing their mother, they were joined there by their kid brother, Chabanne; three weeks later their sister Aïcha joined them as well. Salima was placed in a foster family in the western French province of the Perche.

The elder son, Saïd, was quiet, serious, even timid; he liked to help others. His younger brother Chérif was funny, wild, violent, and rebellious. He loved playing soccer and boasted that he would become a world champion of the game. Their kid brother, Chabanne, however, stole away everyone’s love with his curly hair and little rascal’s smile. He was called “the little prince’ and  “the mascot.” Their pretty sister Aïcha, too, was well liked; she loved to dance and to party, and she smiled a lot, though her mood swung between joy and sadness.

Saïd only lost his temper once, when, during a soccer game, he got into a fight with another player, who replied to his verbal insults with “Ta mère!” (your mother). Saïd went out of his mind. became red all over, he cried, he screamed “Yemma! Yemma!” (Mommy! Mommy!) and he began to pursue the offender with murderous rage; the latter fled for his life and was never seen again. 

After the adolescent Saïd and Chérif finished junior high school in Treignac, Saïd and “Laurent” attended a local hotel school, majoring in cooking. Chérif did less well; he had to repeat the tenth grade, after which he attended a vocational school in Saint-Junien, near Limoges, majoring in sports studies, where he played soccer and prepared for his French examination of professional studies (B.E.P.) as an electrical technician. Saïd and “Laurent” adored their hotel-school teacher, who helped them, win cooking competitions in 1999 and 2000, in Epinal  and Roanne

The French journalist thought that the Kouachi orphans had a good time at La Fonda. They studied, played sports, attended carpentry workshops, sang rap, and had three vacations each year in the mountains or on the beach. They watched movies and received pocket money and Christmas presents (even though they were Muslims). Every two months they visited their kid sister Salima in the province of the Perche, who also occasionally visited them at the “center.” Their life was happier than it had been at home with their unhappy mother. They began to smile again. They had game rooms, a large garden, television. Chérif loved soccer matches and the stand-up comic Djamel Debouzze, a young Moroccan-born French humorist, actor and producer, whom he constantly imitated. He and Saïd lived in four-bed or six-bed dormitory rooms. They had little desks, but did not work very hard.

The youngsters at La Fonda were divided into four groups, the big boys, the middle ones, the little ones, and the girls. Saïd was with the big boys, Chérif with the middle ones, and often with the girls. Saïd was stable; he dated one “white French” girl for several years; Chérif was inconstant, changing girls often. Arabs and blacks did not fight much. The Chinese orphans were silent and worked hard; they were beaten up by the others. The Kosovar refugees were tough; some of them had fought in the Kosovo war.

Chérif could be violent. He once beat the hell out of “Laurent,” a new boy, “to educate him.” The boy ended up in the infirmary, terrified of Chérif. Interviewed by the French journalist after the massacre twenty years later, however, he told her that Chérif had only wanted to haze him in a ritual that all newcomers were put through. The new boy learned to fight and to defend himself. He later became a restaurateur.

A Violent Adolescence

Due to a French ordinance of 1945 on child delinquency, in 1995 the Protection judiciare de la jeunesse (judicial protection of youth) asked the Claude Pompidou Foundation to take delinquent children who had been sentenced by the courts to incarceration; hitherto La Fonda had only taken orphans, children in social or scholastic difficulty, and isolated asylum seekers. The reinforced French educational centers for delinquent youth did not yet exit. These violent delinquent boys hardened the atmosphere at La Fonda. 

During the next five years, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi became more violent. They also became racists, calling themselves “Algerians,” and railing against the white “Frenchmen.” Saïd’s friend “Laurent, who met the French journalist in a railroad station outside France, belittled their racism, saying “those were just words they repeated.” The word “Jew” was never spoken.

Saïd was more religious by far than the rest of his family. He prayed five times daily, strictly observing one of “the five pillars of Islam” (the profession of the faith in Allah and Muhammad, prayer, alms giving, fasting during Ramadan and making the pilgrimage to Mecca), and he worked hard preparing for his professional aptitude certificate (C.A.P.) in cuisine, together with “Laurent,” whom Chérif had beaten up.

Saïd tried to win over Chérif to his devout Muslim religious ways and to hard work, but the younger brother hated religion and books. Saïd and his friend “Laurent”  formed a rap group with Saïd’s kid brother Chabanne; Saïd loved to rap against the immigrant-hating Front national, “he wanted to save all the immigrants,” recalled “Laurent.”

An Abusive Uncle

“Laurent” also told the French journalist that Saïd and Chérif “did not like the French and did not carry the Whites in their hearts.” Why?, asked Marion Van Renterghem. The brothers had been well treated, if not saved, by the French social system. Why did they hate “the French”?

Why, indeed? The two brothers had a maternal uncle in Paris, Mohamed, the brother of their dead mother, who seems to have had an increasing influence on them. Mohamed obtained official permission for his nephews and niece to visit him in his home in Paris. 

Saïd began to change. He became pigheaded; he always wanted to have his way and to be right. He became increasingly religious, boasted about practicing “the five pillars of Islam” and fought with his friends about religion. He deliberately listened to his Walkman in public so that the others would ask him  about it and  he would tell them, “the verses of the Qur’an.” 

Under his uncle’s influence, Chérif changed as well. He became domineering and  aggressive; he could not stand to be contradicted or frustrated;  he took himself for a great but misunderstood soccer player. He dropped out of school and lived in his grandiose fantasy.

From 1999 onward Chérif often asked to visit Uncle Mohamed in Paris with his brother Saïd, who was by now a major, while Chérif was still a minor. The educational team noticed “a surprising change” in Chérif. Under the pretext of going to visit his kid sister Salima, he escaped several times to his uncle in Paris. Upon his return, however, he told the staff that his uncle had beat him up and that he did not want to see him again.

Aïcha Kouachi also went to see her maternal uncle Mohamed in Paris. One Sunday she failed to show up for her appointment with the foundation staff at the Paris railroad station to return to La Fonda. She showed up four days later, looking sad and thin. Aïcha’s friends, however, said that her uncle wished to marry her.

The uncle had been abusing his nephews and his niece, both violently and sexually. In 1999 the foundation’s social workers were informed, and they in turn informed the Protection judiciare de la jeunesse. A judge summoned Mohamed, Saïd, Aïcha, Chérif and Chabanne for a hearing. Mohamed showed up wearing a white North African robe called djellaba. The judge took away his right to see the children. The following year, however, Saïd and Chérif left La Fonda and went to live with their abusive uncle in Paris, while their sister Aïcha remained in Treignac.

By going to live with their abusive uncle in the poor 19th arrondissement of Paris, where they had grown up, the two brothers were compulsively repeating their unbearable childhood trauma. Unlike the other kids at La Fonda, Saïd and Chérif never returned to visit or called again. Chérif had married a Muslim woman named Izzana Hamyd. Saïd had asked for an extension of his stay at La Fonda, saying that he wished to finish the hotel school. Chérif did not wish to stay; in November 2000, as soon as he became a major, he left the foundation and joined his brother in his uncle’s home. Their kid brother Chabanne was sent to join his younger sister Salima in her foster family.

One expert told the French journalist that the French educational system is not good at handling the transition of young people from the institution to life outside. The youths live inside a protective cocoon in the center; once outside, if they don’t find work immediately, they can no longer eat meat every day, nor buy themselves brand-name clothing. The Aide sociale à l’enfance gives them the address of a social worker, pays their hotel expenses for a few days, and then says goodbye to them. They had no adult to trust. They were left to fend for themselves in the jungle of life.

Aïcha Kouachi had a “white French” boyfriend in the town of Treignac named Maxime, who never came near La Fonda while her brothers Saïd and Chérif were there, for fear of them. Even though they had been dating “French” girls, they would not let their sister date “a Frenchman.” Aïcha defiantly wore miniskirts, kept seeing Maxime, and told her brothers that it was her life and that she would do what she pleased. They were furious at her.

Aïcha prepared for her professional aptitude certificate (C.A.P.) while working as a waitress at the Hôtel du Lac in Treignac, owned by Maxime’s mother Brigitte. She was no longer on speaking terms with Saïd and Chérif. She told an educator at La Fonda that her uncle had bad influence on her brothers. After completing her examinations, she left Treignac with Maxime and moved to the town of Les Sables-d’Olonne in the west-central French département of Vendée, perhaps to escape her brothers. A year later, however, Saïd and Chérif found her, took her away from Maxime, forced her to wear the Muslim veil and to marry Chérif’s brother-in-law in a Muslim religious ceremony.

In 2001 “Laurent” met Saïd for the last time in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. While Saïd had found a steady job as a cook in a local restaurant; “Laurent” had been stealing cars and cell phones. After some time, Saïd and Chérif moved in with a woman named Albertine, who also lived in the same district. They had several little job and also trafficked in various products.

A Fiery Preacher

In 2005 Chérif was filmed for a French TV story on young French rappers. Saïd decided to convert his unruly kid brother. He took Chérif to the Adda’wa mosque at 39 Rue de Tanger in the 19th district of Paris (the Arabic word ad-dawah means the proselytizing or preaching of Islam). There, the two brothers fell under the influence of Farid Benyettou, the fiery young Muslim preacher who headed Les Buttes-Chaumont.

The TV images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in the American military prison of Abu Ghraib were used by Benyettou to incite murderous hatred for the “infidel” in the members of Les Buttes-Chaumont. The twenty-two-year-old Chérif, who had been working as a pizza delivery man, was filled with righteous rage. In the early morning of January 25, 2005, he was on his way to Iraq to join Al-Qaeda when he was arrested by the French police and placed in preventive detention in Fleury-Mérogis prison, south  of Paris, in the Essonne département of northern France, where he spent eighteen (or twenty) months. The perceptive American journalists understood that Chérif himself had caused his own arrest:

Sickened by images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison, he [had] made plans to go fight United States forces. He studied a virtual AK-47 on a website. Then he took lessons from a man, using a hand-drawn picture of a gun. It was an almost laughable attempt at jihad, and as the day of his departure approached, the delivery man, Chérif Kouachi, felt increasingly unsure of himself. When the police arrested him hours before his 6:45 a.m. Alitalia flight on Jan. 25, 2005, he was relieved. “Several times, I felt like pulling out. I didn’t want to die there,” he later told investigators. “I told myself that if I chickened out, they would call me a coward, so I decided to go anyway, despite the reservations I had.” A decade later, Chérif Kouachi, flanked by his older brother Saïd, 34, no longer had any reservations, as the two jihadists in black, sheathed in body armor, gave a global audience a ruthless demonstration in terrorism.

The French judicial system must have a huge backlog of cases. The trial of the Buttes-Chaumont took place in 2008. Chérif Kouachi had spent eighteen (or twenty) months in prison and was free on parole. “Laurent” told the French journalist that when he saw Chérif’s name on the Internet he did not even click on the link for his old friend, as he did not believe that Chérif could have been involved in such terrorist acts. Indeed, Chérif had changed drastically. During his incarceration in the Fleury-Mérogis prison he had met and become close to Djamel Beghal (born 1965), an Algerian-born French jihadist who had been trained in weapons and explosives in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, and to Amedy Coulibaly (born 1982), the black African-French criminal who had been convicted of armed bank robbery and sentenced to six years in  prison.

Djamel Beghal was a long-time Islamic terrorist. In 2001 he had been arrested in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, while transferring from a flight from Pakistan to a flight to Europe, for holding a fake French passport. For two months he was tortured by the Emirati police, with the alleged complicity of the British and French governments. Under torture, Beghal confessed to the Emirati authorities that he was conspiring to destroy the U.S. embassy in Paris. After being extradited to France, Beghal retracted part of his statement, claiming that it had been made under duress. Beghal told the French magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière that he had visited Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and had planned a suicide bomb attack. In 2005 French authorities convicted Beghal and five others for planning the attacks on the embassy. Beghal was sentenced to ten years in the Fleury-Mérogis prison. During his time in prison, he met and mentored his fellow prisoners Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly.

In 2010 Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly met Djamel Beghal, who was now under house arrest in the Cantal département of southwestern France. After Belkacem’s attempt to escape from prison that year, fourteen people were arrested for having assisted him. Coulibaly was imprisoned; Chérif was placed under judicial supervision and had to report to the police every month. In 2011 Saïd left for Yemen, where Chérif joined him for three weeks between two judicial supervision sessions. In 2014 Saïd and Chérif were placed on wiretapping for trafficking in fake sports clothing. After hearing no conversations about Islamic terror activities, however, the authorities stopped the wiretapping seven months before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Before dying from the bullets of the French police, Chérif told the French TV station that he had been sent by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The perceptive American journalists observed that the French authorities could have prevented the tragedy had they paid more attention to the Kouachi brothers. “The 10-year evolution from easily spooked amateur to hardened killer is a story of steadily deepening radicalism that occurred virtually under the noses of French authorities, who twice had Chérif in their grasp. After the arrest of Chérif in 2005, when he was no more than a fledgling jihadist, he spent 20 months in prison. There, he met and became an acolyte of Al Qaeda’s top operative in France, Djamel Beghal, who had been dispatched to Paris to set up a cell aimed at attacking United States interests here.”

Is There a Satisfactory Explanation?

Marion Van Renterghem concluded her newspaper story sadly: “That’s all. The story of two orphans who did not accept that of their Algerian parents. A search for sense for for recognition, the meeting of sick and powerful brains who made them believe it. Two ordinary young Frenchmen who simply did not know what to make of their lives.”

In fact, it was not so simple. Here were two young Algerian Muslim Arab French orphans who had suffered a very traumatic childhood, who had developed severe personality disorders of the narcissistic and borderline kind, and who had unconsciously tried to shore up their poor self-esteem and relieve their unbearable sense of non-being by harboring violent hatred and murderous rage, and who were desperately caught up on their own delusions. The normal fraternal rivalry between the two brothers had become a fusional “twinship” relationship in which their murderous narcissistic rage was unconsciously displaced to the “infidel” and their unbearable self-image projected onto “the Frenchmen’ and “the Americans.”

Is all this enough to explain the terrible tragedy? Of course not. As I have stated at the beginning, such tragedies have numerous causes at the same time. In order to understand what caused this terrible massacre one would need to consider not only the life histories of the two assassins but also their fraternal relationship, the relationship of French society with its Muslim minority, the repeated anti-Muslim provocations of the journalists and cartoonists involved, the relations between Muslims and Jews in France, the effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the French Muslims, and many others. I have tried to do so above.

Here are some comments by my French colleague Claire Meljac, written during the days of the tragic drama:

Yes, actually, one thinks, at first, of a missed action, incredibly missed … at least because it has not succeeded. In fact, one can take another avenue (not necessarily contradictory). That identity card, which came out of the pocket that contained it, was perhaps a megalomaniac act of self-vindication, of the type that says, “Yes, it is I the murderer — it is indeed me — and I sign my act. But even with this signature you will not find me. It is I who am the stronger.” But let us imagine, more generally, what is going on in the ailing minds of the Kouachi brothers. With what rage were these orphans-murderers possessed, who had been raised in anonymous institutions — each one of them having,, we can suppose, but one love object: a brother who was as unhappy as himself — for that rage to make them, in a madness of conversion, turn it symbolically against the [writing] ‘feathers’ of a newspaper that they considered offensive? By the complicated debate that I hear on the radio waves, it seems to me that people are confusing two psychological issues: 1. That of rage at the felt offense when the papers or the cartoons represent their people or religion, or prophets in an ironical mode: for instance Muhammad exclaiming “It is hard to be adored by assholes!” I can easily imagine that this kind of joke is not easy to swallow. I heard yesterday a young teacher trying to explain to her Muslim pupils that everything was all right with this caricature. “Can’t you notice that the assholes were just a part of the Muslims?” Stupid commentary. Some people are allergic to this kind of humor. Let us admit it and understand that some of this population can feel offended. 2. That of the acting out of devastated feelings via actual organized murders, supported by a large community. Offended some people (specially suffering people) can be by hearing and reading mockery and I would not call it a surprise. It is not for that reason, however, that you have to take a machine gun. These two types of reaction (the impression of a joke in bad taste, insulting, on the one hand, the wish to kill on the other) occupy two different areas in brain and behavior. It is their union in the acting out of the murderous fantasies that we need to study, not their eventuality.

Your own thoughts on this tragedy will be appreciated.


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