France: Investigators probe web of terror links as search for suspect continues
(CNN) — New claims emerged Saturday linking one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers in France with the so-called underwear bomber, who sought to bring down a plane over Detroit in 2009.
The revelation — which has not been confirmed by officials — comes as French investigators seek to piece together the web of connections between three suspects killed Friday as two sieges came to a bloody end, and as the country comes to terms with three days of terror that left 17 victims dead.
The suspects killed were brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, authors of Wednesday’s deadly attack on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo; and Amedy Coulibaly, suspected in the death of a French policewoman Thursday and the shootings and hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket Friday.
A woman also wanted over the policewoman’s shooting, named as Hayat Boumeddiene, is still at large.
Investigators in France and the United States have been looking for evidence tying the Kouachi brothers to associates in terror networks such as al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate and ISIS.
A Yemeni journalist and researcher, Mohammed al-Kibsi, told CNN that he had met and spoken with Said Kouachi in Yemen in 2011 and 2012.
Kouachi, who was studying Arabic grammar, and Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab were roommates for one to two weeks in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, living in the same small apartment, al-Kibsi said.
Kouachi’s residence was very near to the famous Al-Tabari School and he and AbdulMutallab used to pray together there, said al-Kibsi by telephone Saturday.
U.S. officials have said Said Kouachi spent several months in Yemen in 2011, receiving weapons training and working with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
But there has been no official confirmation as yet of the claim that he and AbdulMutallab, now serving prison time in the United States, were associates.
The attack at the Paris office of the Charlie Hebdo left 12 dead on Wednesday and shocked France.
“The nation is relieved tonight,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Friday after the two standoffs concluded.
But the French government’s work is not over.
There’s still a lot of healing to do, a lot of questions to answer on how this happened and how to prevent future attacks. And police continue the hunt for Boumeddiene, Coulibaly’s partner.
France will remain at a heightened security as investigations continue, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday after an emergency security meeting.
All necessary measures will also be taken to ensure the safety of people who attend a unity rally planned in Paris on Sunday, he said. Extra steps will also be taken to protect religious institutions.
A total of 1,100 French troops are currently deployed in the Paris region, alongside police forces, to increase security following the attacks, the Defense Ministry said Saturday. An additional 250 soldiers will be on duty Sunday for the unity march, the ministry said.
Altogether, nearly 1,900 French troops will take part in providing additional security across the country as part of the France’s security alert system, known as Vigipirate.
The precautions may help to ease the nerves of a country left on edge by the wave of violence.
The flurry of deadly events Friday started in Dammartin-en-Goele, northeast of Paris, where the Kouachi brothers took refuge in a print shop in an industrial area after two days on the run.
Hours later, after a major police operation locked down the town, the brothers were dead and a man who’d been hiding out in the building was freed unharmed.
Not everyone was so lucky in the grocery story standoff, which unfolded simultaneously in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris.
French President Francois Hollande said four hostages were killed. Coulibaly also was killed after police moved in to end the siege.
The four victims were identified Saturday by the French Jewish publication JSSNEWS as being Yohan Cohen, age 22, Yoav Hattab, age 21, Philippe Braham and Francois Michel Saada.
Israeli government sources told CNN that Hollande had told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that 15 were rescued. The four hostages were killed by the gunman before police stormed the market, sources said.
One of the hostages, identified only as Marie, told CNN affiliate BFMTV that the gunman was heavily armed — and that she was very happy to be alive.
“As soon as he got inside, he started shooting. He scared us because he told us: I am not afraid to die and he said either I die or I go to jail for 40 years. He knew this was his last day,” she said.
Hollande called the Porte de Vincennes deaths an “anti-Semitic” act and urged citizens not to lash out against Muslims.
“Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion,” he said. “Unity is our best weapon.”
Ties to Islamist extremists?
While Said Kouachi is suspected of links to al Qaeda in Yemen, Cherif Kouachi has a long history of jihad and anti-Semitism, according to documents obtained by CNN. In a 400-page court record, he is described as wanting to go to Iraq through Syria “to go and combat the Americans.”
Cherif Kouachi was a close associate of Coulibaly, a Western intelligence source told CNN.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for orchestrating the Charlie Hebdo attack, the founder of the magazine The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill, told CNN. CNN has not independently confirmed this claim.
A man claiming to be Amedy Coulibaly, the hostage-taker at the Paris grocery store, told CNN affiliate BFMTV that he belonged to the Islamist militant group ISIS.
The Western intelligence source said Coulibaly lived with Boumeddiene, his alleged accomplice in the police shooting.
Boumeddiene exchanged 500 phone calls with the wife of Cherif Kouachi in 2014, according to Paris prosecutor Francois Molin. The wife told investigators that her husband and Coulibaly knew each other well.
French media outlets AFP, iTele and Le Point reported that police released Hamyd Mourad, 18, who turned himself in Wednesday after seeing his name on social media in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack.
What’s next for the magazine?
Charlie Hebdo plans to go on even without its leader and cherished staffers. It’s set to publish many extra copies of its latest edition next Wednesday.
“I don’t know if I’m afraid any more, because I’ve seen fear. I was scared for my friends, and they are dead,” said Patrick Pelloux, a columnist for the magazine.
He and many others are defiant.
“I know that they didn’t want us to be quiet,” Pelloux said of the slain colleagues. “They would be assassinated twice, if we remained silent.”
Former Charlie Hebdo journalist Caroline Fourest said the magazine’s remaining journalists were back at work, despite it being “amazingly hard.” One of the attack survivors has drawn next week’s cover, she told CNN.
And, she added, the extremists failed in their aims. They have made the name of Charlie Hebdo internationally famous, she said, at the same time as exposing their own weakness.
“The jihadists are so weak that they are afraid (of) cartoons. Can you imagine?” she said. “But the cartoons will defeat them.”