PARIS – A fingerprint smudged on a Molotov cocktail, an identity card left in a getaway car and DNA found in a balaclava all helped French police piece together the identity of the jihadi gunmen who held the country in a three-day-long grip of terror.
On a near-freezing Wednesday morning, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi got into their black Citroen loaded with an arsenal of heavy weapons and drove to the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in central Paris.
Elsewhere Amedy Coulibaly, 32, a close friend, was preparing for his role in the bloodshed to come, to “take care of the police” while the brothers carried out an attack at the weekly to “avenge the Prophet Muhammad” it had so often mocked.
A few crucial mistakes would allow police to quickly identify them in a colossal manhunt that culminated in Friday’s dramatic showdown, which left all three dead.
This was an outcome they expected. Witness testimony and interviews on French television revealed that Coulibaly wanted to “die a martyr,” while Cherif said, “We have gotten our vengeance” as he accused the West of killing civilians in Iraq and Syria.
Charlie Hebdo massacre
After shooting a man in the entrance to the building, one of the gunmen — whom Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said was the brother Said, 34, — entered a room where the entire editorial team was gathered.
Inside, veteran reporter Laurent Leger described hearing what sounded like “fireworks” before Said burst in, shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) and began spraying the room with bullets.
Leger hid behind a table as one by one his colleagues crumpled to the ground.
In a Paris restaurant, the girlfriend of Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet, 42, was watching the horror unfold on television, unaware that her boyfriend was about to be coldly executed on a sidewalk.
The grisly scene inside the Charlie Hebdo building where eight journalists, a police guard and a visitor were killed was littered with 31 Kalashnikov bullet casings, said Molins.
Outside, a further 25 bullet casings from a 9-mm handgun were scattered around as the brothers climbed into their parked Citroen and fled to the north of Paris.
After an accident, they were forced to abandon their car, providing investigators with crucial information such as Said’s identity card.
Cherif’s fingerprint was found on one of 10 Molotov cocktails, while Molins revealed police had also found a “jihadi flag” of the type used by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State group, two walkie-talkies, a Go-Pro camera and Kalashnikov cartridges.
Arrest warrants issued
That same afternoon police issued arrest warrants for the brothers and took Cherif’s wife into custody.
Phone lines were tapped and search warrants obtained for houses where the suspects were likely to seek refuge as an all-night search resulted in different relatives being taken into custody.
Enter Coulibaly. The petty criminal believed to have been radicalized in prison was armed to the teeth when he was involved in a car accident before sunrise the next morning in the Montrouge area, south of Paris.
Masked and wearing a bulletproof vest, he fired on police coming to investigate with a Kalashnikov and handgun, killing a policewoman and injuring a municipal worker.
He then hijacked a car, dropping his balaclava as he fled.
Within two hours police were able to match DNA from the balaclava with that of Coulibaly, who was also identified by a witness and whose name had cropped up in the Kouachi investigation.
Cherif’s wife confirmed to police that the two men knew each other “very well.” She and Coulibaly’s wife were found to have spoken by phone more than 500 times in the past year.
Betrayed by hunger?
Meanwhile, the Kouachis, who had hijacked a new car, a Clio, popped back onto the police radar when they marched into a gasoline station about an hour’s drive north of Paris.
The duo placed what Molins called “war weapons” on the counter and stole a bag of food before again fleeing.
Helicopters and police spread out in the area in pursuit.
The suspects were again forced to show themselves when their Clio got stuck in the mud in a forested area following a day of heavy rainfall.
On Friday morning police received a call that two armed men had “jumped out of the woods” and hijacked a new car, telling the terrified driver they “were there to avenge the prophet,” said Molins.
They fled back in the direction of Paris where, in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele they abandoned their vehicle after running into a police roadblock. A shootout ensued.
With Said sustaining a light injury to his throat, they fled on foot to a nearby printing plant, taking the manager hostage but releasing him after he helped bandage the wound.
Unbeknownst to them, another employee, 26-year-old Lilian, cowered under a sink one floor above, from where he was able to relay tactical information to police units outside.
Security forces left several messages on the brothers’ cellphones in a bid to launch negotiations but these were ignored, said Molins.
In eastern Paris, Franck was shopping in the Hyper Casher Jewish supermarket when Coulibaly stormed through the door and opened fire.
Franck and a group of other people — including a 3-year-old and a 1-month-old baby — were ushered into a refrigerator by a local employee to hide.
“We were all convinced we were going to die,” he told reporters.
But Coulibaly soon realized some customers were hiding and sent someone to find them, “threatening to kill them if they didn’t return.” Molins said Coulibaly threatened to kill all the hostages if police launched an assault on the Kouachi brothers.
Outside the printing plant, shortly before 5 p.m., a door on the ground floor inched open for a few minutes before the gunmen burst out, guns blazing.
After failing to disorient them by throwing stun grenades, police forces cut them down in a hail of bullets. At the same time, a final assault was mounted on the supermarket where Coulibaly was also killed.
Inside the printing business, security forces found a loaded M42 rocket launcher, two pistols, 10 smoke grenades, two Kalashnikovs as well as a grenade on one of the bodies.
At the supermarket, they found about 15 sticks of dynamite, a detonator, a Kalashnikov and several Russian-made pistols.
And France breathed again.