WASHINGTON – One of two brothers suspected of carrying out the deadly shooting at a French satirical weekly on Wednesday visited Yemen in 2011 to train with al-Qaida-affiliated militants, U.S. and European sources close to the investigation said Thursday.
The sources said Said Kouachi, 34, was in Yemen for a number of months training with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group’s most active affiliates.
He and his brother, Cherif, 32, are the subject of a massive manhunt in France following the killing of 12 people by Islamist gunmen at the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
The two suspects are French-born sons of Algerian-born parents. Both men had been under police surveillance. Cherif was jailed for 18 months for trying to travel to Iraq a decade ago to fight as part of an Islamist cell.
A Yemeni official familiar with the matter said the government was aware of the possibility of a connection between Said and AQAP, and is looking into possible links.
The sources said that after Said returned to France from Yemen, both brothers appeared to have refrained from any activities that might have drawn the attention of French law enforcement or spy agencies.
They also said that in the months leading up to Wednesday’s attack, the men were not treated as priority targets by French counterterrorism agencies.
U.S. government sources said both Said and Cherif were listed in two U.S. security databases — a highly-classified database containing information on 1.2 million possible counterterrorism suspects, called TIDE, and the much smaller “no fly” list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, an interagency unit.
ABC News reported that the brothers had been listed in the databases for “years.”
Dave Joly, a spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center, said he could neither confirm nor deny whether the Kouachis were listed in counterterrorism databases.
“Disclosure of an individual’s inclusion or noninclusion in the TSDB (screening databases) would significantly impair the government’s ability to investigate and counteract terrorism,” Joly said.
At the time Said went to Yemen, one of AQAP’s top inspirational and organizational leaders was Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born preacher prominent in spreading the group’s militant message to European and English-speaking audiences. It is not known if Said had any contact with al-Awlaki, who was killed in September 2011 in a drone strike widely attributed to the CIA.
Some investigators believe al-Awlaki’s death could have contributed to the brothers’ decision to lie low, but other investigators say that it is too early to reach such a conclusion. Investigators are trying to establish the significance, if any, of the brothers’ links with AQAP or any other radical Islamist group.
One of those killed in the Paris attack was Charlie Hebdo’s top editor, Stephane Charbonnier, who drew cartoons under the rubric “Charb.”
Last spring, Inspire, an English-language online magazine published by AQAP, featured a “Wanted dead or alive” graphic which included Charbonnier’s name and photograph. There was no immediate evidence that the graphic actually inspired the Paris attack.