One of the suspects in the attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo studied in Yemen where he attended Al-Qaeda training camps, Yemeni security sources and a classmate said Friday.
Said Kouachi appeared at various times between 2009 and 2013 in the troubled Arabian peninsula country, firstly as a student at Sanaa’s Al-Iman University, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, and then at Al-Qaeda training camps in south and southeast Yemen, the sources said.
According to witness reports from Wednesday’s attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead, one of the two gunmen cried out that Al-Qaeda in Yemen was behind it.
The two suspects, Said Kouachi and his brother Cherif, were killed Friday when police stormed the building where they were holed up, sources close to the investigation said.
Said Kouachi in 2009 attended Al-Iman University, headed by fundamentalist preacher Abdel Majid al-Zindani whose name figures on a US terror blacklist, a former Yemeni classmate told AFP, declining to be named.
According to US officials, Kouachi was known by French intelligence to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received training from its local affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in small arms combat and marksmanship.
Yemen, a key ally in US efforts to combat Al-Qaeda, has been wracked by political turmoil and violence since an uprising toppled strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012.
AQAP, formed in January 2009 as a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al-Qaeda, is seen by Washington as the jihadist network’s most dangerous branch.
The US has launched scores of drone strikes on AQAP targets in Yemen, which experts say the group has been using as a military and ideological training ground for jihadists from around the world.
Laurent Bonnefoy, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris and an expert on Yemen, said many foreigners travel to the country to attend Koranic and Arabic language classes.
Some of the students, “who at the outset do not have a violent outlook, veer towards violence,” Bonnefoy said.
Saeed al-Jamhi, a Yemeni researcher and specialist on extremist groups, said AQAP has finetuned “a policy of recruiting foreign elements” among students who converge on the impoverished and unstable country.
“After having trained them, AQAP leaves them free to select the targets and means to carry out” attacks, he said.
Bonnefoy agreed that “any eventual claim of responsibility does not mean that AQAP was directly involved or provided operational support”.
However, Charlie Hebdo has for years been on an AQAP list of targets and Al-Qaeda’s late chief Osama bin Laden warned Europe back in 2008 of consequences for Prophet Mohammed cartoons published in a Danish newspaper and reproduced in the French weekly.
– ‘Disciplined and calm’ –
According to the classmate at Al-Iman University, Said Kouachi, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, used the name of Mohammed.
“He was disciplined, calm and discreet” as a student, he said.
The classmate said he lost track of Kouachi between 2010 and 2013, when Shiite militiamen overran a studies centre in Dammaj, in Saada province to the north of the capital, run by Salafists, a hardline school of Sunni Islam.
Another colleague said Kouachi battled with other students to defend the centre against the Shiite fighters, before their defeat in December of that year when survivors were evacuated.
How he returned to France afterwards remains unknown.