PARIS – When French anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Louis Bruguiere first clapped eyes on Cherif Kouachi 10 years ago, his first impression was that he was a “small fry.”
His second impression: the man was a killer.
With Kouachi, 32, now targeted in one of France’s biggest manhunts as a suspect in the Charlie Hebdo massacres, Bruguiere’s second premonition may prove to have been correct.
“The silent ones are those who go rogue,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Dozens of terror police converged on a group of small hamlets in northern France in the search for Kouachi and his 34- year-old brother, Said Kouachi. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters that 88,000 police and military personnel have been mobilized since the attackers stormed into the headquarters of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo Wednesday and killed 12 people with assault rifles.
To the police, Cherif Kouachi is a known quantity. Bruguiere ordered his 2005 arrest for his role in a jihadist recruitment cell sending fighters to Iraq, the first such group identified in France. It was called the “Filiere des Buttes Chaumont” after the leafy park in Paris’s 19th arrondissement near where they met.
“When he sat in front of me in 2005, he didn’t make an impression,” said the now-retired prosecutor. “He was a small fry, with not much personality and under the influence of a jihadist ring leader.”
Even so, his arrest was reported in an article in the New York Times and he was profiled in a documentary by France 3 Television called “Elements of Evidence.” In it, he’s shown singing rap songs. He preferred rap and pretty girls to attending services at the mosque, the narrator says.
That didn’t stop him from listening to the sermons of Farid Benyettou, the self-proclaimed spiritual leader of a Paris-based group of about 10 men. It met at his home rather than a mosque; members also jogged together in the park.
Benyettou was sentenced to six years on charges of intent to commit a terrorist attack. Cherif said during the trial in 2008 that he was inspired by the abuse of inmates by U.S. troops at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.
The reason for his 2005 arrest: he was still in the country because he had missed his plane to Syria en route to Iraq.
His sentence was three years in prison, including 18 months he had already served. Cherif held different jobs after his prison time, including as a pizza delivery man and a fishmonger.
Cherif and Said Kouachi were abandoned by their parents in their youth and bounced from one institution to another, according to judicial authorities and press reports. While Bruguiere says he has no recollection of Said, he said Cherif seemed to be searching for support and family. Cazeneuve said Said was unemployed and living in the northeastern city of Reims — where police conducted a raid Wednesday.
Cherif was arrested again in 2010 for suspected involvement in plotting the escape of one of the masterminds of terrorist attacks in 1995 that roiled France, killing eight people and injuring more than 200, according to police reports.
He was detained for about four months before being released after prosecutors decided not to proceed with his case.
He was a small fry, a magistrate who interrogated him in the past said. He was part of a team led by Djamel Beghal, the mastermind of a plot for a suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris before the 9/11 attacks.
Cherif, while never a leader, has been close to major terrorists for the past decade, the magistrate said. He asked not to be identified, citing judicial ground rules.
Photos of both brothers, along with their names and birth dates, are on the official police Twitter account, @prefpolice.
“They were known to the security services and were being followed,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on RTL Radio, without providing a time period.