A new kind of terrorist

Clarissa Ward reports on the French neighborhood and prison that gave rise to the terrorists who carried out the two deadly attacks in Paris last month

The following is a script from "A New Kind of Terrorist" which aired on Feb. 15, 2015. Clarissa Ward is the correspondent. Randall Joyce, producer.

It's been more than a month since Cherif and Said Kouachi killed 12 people in an attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris. The next day, Amedy Coulibaly joined in the carnage -- first shooting a policewoman and then four shoppers in a kosher grocery store.

The killings shook France to its core. Now that the immediate shock has worn off we're starting to learn more about how French authorities missed this threat. The picture that is emerging is of a new kind of terrorist, born and raised in some of France's roughest neighborhoods, a threat so close to home they didn't see it.

Cell phone cameras captured the final moments of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The gunmen were so confident, the sidewalk execution of a wounded police officer so cold blooded, many concluded it was the work of a sophisticated terror network. Analysts seized on the tight grouping of bullet holes in a police windshield as evidence that the attackers were highly-trained, hinting at an exotic foreign threat. As the gunmen carried out the killings, they shouted that they were part of al Qaeda in Yemen. When a third man launched separate attacks, Paris felt like a city under siege.

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From left: Cherif and Said Kouachi

As the identities of the gunmen leaked out, there was another shock to come. Cherif Kouachi, his brother Said and Amedy Coulibaly were all well known to French authorities. Two of the men had been in and out of prison. All three had once been under surveillance.

Criminologist Xavier Raufer, has taught some of France's top cops and is now learning from them how the system broke down in this case.

Clarissa Ward: All three of these men were very well-known to the police. How did this happen?

Xavier Raufer: And not only were they known to the police on the terrorist side, because they had the terrorist past but they were also known on the criminal side. Those are not 100 percent pure terrorists. Those are hybrids-- people, who at the same time, are hardened criminals. So, why did that happen? Is that the French legal system has a small box for a terrorist, has another small box for criminals and if you are at the same time one and the other, you fall into the crack in the middle and you are lost. This is basically what happened.

Clarissa Ward: Is this the new face of terrorism, this hybrid between jihad and petty criminals?

Xavier Raufer: Of course. Those are the only ones that are left. You know, jihad as an ideal has degenerated along the last 10 or 20 years. Fifteen, 20 years ago the bin Laden type. Now you have common criminals and thugs. One day they drink beer, the next day they smoke pot, the third day they are in a mosque. So, those are totally unstable people. They are human bombs, you know. They can explode any time.

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Amedy Coulibaly

Cherif Kouachi is a perfect example of that hybrid phenomenon. He and his brother Said were orphans of Algerian descent who ended up in foster care. As a teenager, Cherif was more interested in rap than religion. This video, shot by his friends, documents that period in his life when was he smoking pot and chasing girls. He worked as a pizza delivery boy, but his life changed in 2003 when he became radicalized by a group of young Muslims in this Paris neighborhood. They were angry about the American invasion of Iraq and set up a recruitment ring to send young French Muslims to fight jihad against U.S. forces. But Cherif was arrested the day before he was due to fly and he served 20 months in jail for his part in the conspiracy.

Vincent Ollivier was Kouachi's lawyer at the time. He says his client was a bit of a coward who was actually glad to be caught.

Vincent Ollivier: He was a lost and confused young boy. And he talked to the judge to me and to the court later that he was relieved of being arrested because he was afraid to go to Iraq and he thought that it-- wouldn't come back-- at least in one piece. So he was kind of relieved to be arrested, yeah.

Clarissa Ward: Do you believe that?

Vincent Ollivier: At this time, I believed it quite strongly. Maybe he played us all but this wasn't my feeling.

One investigator involved in the case told us Cherif and his associates were dismissed as "mad dogs and morons" who posed no serious threat.

Alain Chouet: "The problem was not to know if we would have a terrorist attack but when..."

Alain Chouet is the former head of security intelligence at the DGSE which is France's CIA. He says French authorities were focused on the wrong threats.

Alain Chouet: No one in Yemen in al Qaeda gave to the Kouachi brothers any instruction to attack Charlie Hebdo such on such day, such time, such date.

Clarissa Ward: So what did they give them? What kind of instructions--

Alain Chouet: They had no instructions. It's their own initiative.

Clarissa Ward: Some people have suggested that security forces were so fixated on finding terrorists, kingpins, pa-- part of a larger network, that to focus on a petty criminal like Cherif Kouachi or Amedy Coulibaly, it seemed not very exciting-- not very important.

Alain Chouet: So when you are always catching little fishes which are forgotten after two or three years, then you try to catch a bigger one. And you put all your means on the possibility of catching a big one.

Clarissa Ward: But now it seems that little fish are the real danger.

Alain Chouet: Sure. The problem is ours. The problem is in our own society, on our own territory.

Amedy Coulibaly's life is a good illustration of that problem. Like Cherif he was a hybrid. He had a long rap sheet for armed robbery. And was trying to live the good life, gangster style. On beach vacations he posed for pictures with his girlfriend who was in a bikini. But look at this later photo, the couple is still together but the picture is radically different.

This is where it's believed his transformation took place, in an infamous French prison, Fleury-Merogis, where Coulibaly served time for robbery. It was here that he met Cherif Kouachi and where they both came under the influence of this man: Djamel Beghal an al Qaeda operative doing time for a conspiracy to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris. Beghal was in solitary confinement but Coulibaly later described how the men would communicate by talking through an open window and even passing notes to each other. The dysfunctional French prison system had put the little fish in with a shark.

Clarissa Ward: Djamel Beghal was in solitary confinement, right? How, if you're in solitary confinement in prison, are you still able to radicalize two young men?

Alain Chouet: It's a joke. How do you want that to isolate someone when you have 50,000 cells and 65,000 prisoners?

After they were released from prison the three continued to mee. These surveillance photos show Cherif and Coulibaly visiting Beghal in the French countryside.

Xavier Raufer: Beghal, for them, is the guru type. They don't know much about Islam. So, they are like kids, saying, "Mommy, what if I do this? Mommy, what if I do that?" And who is Mommy? It's the guru--

Beghal and Coulibaly were soon heading back to prison for another plot. But what has surprised everyone is that after Coulibaly was released in March of last year he was never followed again.

Alain Chouet: Well, it's funny. But in France, for the sexual criminals, we have a databank, fingerprints, DNA. They are obliged to go to the police precinct or to the gendarmerie every week. They have to say where they live, where they work, and so on. But for the terrorists, nothing. When they are finished with their sentence, with jail, it's finished. Nobody follows.

Clarissa Ward: How is that possible?

Alain Chouet: It's possible. (laugh)

In 2011, after at least one of the Kouachis briefly visited Yemen, the brothers went quiet and just seven months before the attacks, their surveillance stopped. As with their friend Coulibaly, they had slipped off the radar.

Xavier Raufer: During that time, the Kouachi brothers were quietly preparing, buying hoods, buying machine guns, Kalashnikov, and stealing cars in order to attack Charlie Hebdo. This is what happened.

Clarissa Ward: So, in a sense, because they have this criminal experience, they're also better able to outsmart the authorities because they have so much experience with law enforcement. They know how they work.

Xavier Raufer: They are streetwise, you know. They have been trained to spot the cops arriving, the police car, undercover car. They can spot them from other cars. They know where to buy guns. They are streetwise.

That's because they grew up in places like this, poor French suburbs called "banlieues," known for high crime, high unemployment and poor integration. The fear is that they have become fertile recruiting ground for radical Islamists looking for foot soldiers.

This banlieue called Epinay sits on the edge of Paris and is a hub for moving drugs into the capital. After getting approval from local crime bosses, we took a tour with Rabah Serrai, a social worker who has lived here all his life.

France has very strict gun laws. But this man told us that if you have the cash buying a Kalashnikov assault rifle is not difficult here.

What is difficult is getting a job and getting out...

(Voice of translator): France has never been able to put all its children at the same level. This country has left some by the side of the road. And these abandoned children grow up badly. They are badly educated. They have a bad image of their country and they are easy prey for fanatics.

By the time the Kouachis and Coulibaly popped back on the radar with their attacks it was too late for French authorities to connect the dots.

Security services still don't know the extent to which the plots were coordinated. While the Kouachi brothers said they were sent by al Qaeda, Coulibaly declared allegiance to ISIS but it's unlikely that either group provided much more than inspiration.

Alain Chouet: We can assume that-- problem of Kouachi or Coulibaly is not a terrorist problem. It's a psychiatric problem.

Clarissa Ward: What motivates them is something inside of them, something psychological?

Alain Chouet: Yeah, themselves, their own personality, their own self, bad image.

Clarissa Ward: Is it a desire to be heard by society, a desire to be appreciated or understood or have an impact?

Alain Chouet: The desire to be someone which they never have been in their life.

Cherif Kouachi may have succeeded in becoming one of France's most famous terrorists but French authorities ordered he be buried without ceremony in an unmarked grave in this cemetery outside Paris. They've gone to great lengths to ensure that no one will ever know exactly which grave is his...the same treatment given to his brother, Said, and his friend, Amedy Coulibaly.

Photo credit: POLARIS

  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News