DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This morning we're exploring the road to radicalization through the life of one man, Cherif Kouachi. He's one of the two brothers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Their journey to that moment began more than a decade ago. The brothers began as small-time criminals and became violent jihadis. Theirs is a textbook case of radicalization, as we'll hear from NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. She traveled to France to track Cherif Kouachi's story. We begin in the Paris suburbs.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: To get to the neighborhood where the Kouachi brothers spent their teenage years, you need to ride the Metro 40 minutes to the far northeast of Paris, to the 19th arrondissement. This is one of the city's working-class neighborhoods, filled with Algerians and North and Central African immigrants. This is where Cherif Kouachi and his brother Said came almost 15 years ago. I went out to the 19th to meet Laila Fathi, a Muslim rights advocate in Paris.
Hi there. How are you?
LAILA FATHI: Good, and you?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Very well.
And we walked to the Buttes-Chaumont park. This is where years ago, according to local police, Cherif Kouachi and a dozen other men ran around the park, amateurs training for jihad. Fathi, who lives in the neighborhood, runs in the park all the time.
FATHI: Oh, my, God - maybe I ran next to them. (Laughter). Maybe I was running right next to them not knowing this. This is insane.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Buttes-Chaumont looks like France's answer to Central Park.
FATHI: You see there? There's a bridge, there's the river going around the cliff. You have a very nice view of Paris.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And from here, you can see the housing projects where the Kouachi brothers lived. The buildings are tall blocks with just slits for windows.
FATHI: We call them (speaking French), chicken boxes, because people just go there to - I mean, there's no park there, nothing.
TEMPLE-RASTON: People who knew the brothers say that even though they were born in France, they felt the prejudice of the newly-arrived. They were of Algerian descent. They were orphans.
FATHI: We keep on talking about the terrorists and the Kouachi brothers for what they did, but there's little light on who they were and where they came from.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Laila Fathi says the Kouachi brothers bounced from foster homes to housing projects to dead-end jobs, and that set a pattern.
FATHI: I'm not saying it to justify anything, but what I'm trying to get at is that before going into prison, they were not particularly radical. I mean, I cannot go in their head, but, they were just criminals with opinions.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Criminals with opinions. To this point, around 2003, Cherif Kouachi had been involved in petty crimes. He stole cars, he smoked pot, but he was about to enter the next phase of radicalization. The woman who knows this part of the story is Myriam Benraad. I met her in a small cafe in central Paris. She's a research fellow at Sciences Po. Her thesis was on a group of jihadis known as the Buttes-Chaumont Group, named after the park. The leader of the group was a janitor-turned-charismatic-imam. His name was Farid Benyettou.
MYRIAM BENRAAD: Farid took him to his place and started delivering courses, what he claimed was the knowledge of Islam and the Quran in French. And little by little, this led to planning to wage jihad.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He convinced the young men in the group, including Cherif Kouachi, that they needed to go to Iraq to fight the Americans.
BENRAAD: Their plan was to go to Syria under the cover of learning Arabic and studying Islam, with the idea that once in Syria, they would basically pass through the border and join the insurgency in Iraq.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Cherif Kouachi never made it to Iraq. He was arrested before he boarded his flight. Not long afterward, he found himself before a judge. That judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, spent 10 hours interviewing Kouachi - this would've been in 2005 - and he thought he was a petty jihadi and nothing to worry about.
JUDGE JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: At that time he was not a very high-profile jihadi. I remember though that he was very anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The judge says in hindsight, Kouachi's decision to go to Iraq should've been a warning side.
BRUGUIERE: For the first time he engaged and was willing to go to Iraq, you know, to fight against the United States, the U.S. troops, by suicide operations. That was very new for us.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Cherif Kouachi was sent to prison outside Paris while he awaited trial. Several years ago, inmates from that very prison got a video camera into the facility and filmed just how dismal the conditions were. There were showers without nozzles, garbage strewn everywhere.
And in this clip, an inmate showing how prisoners in isolation were still able to speak to each other by passing notes tied to sheets that had been ripped into strips. They're known as yo-yo's.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
TEMPLE-RASTON: "Are you ready?" the man in the video says. "Here it goes."
And he demonstrates how to pass a note through the bars. It's estimated that between 50 to 70 percent of the prison population in France is Muslim. And it was during his 20 months behind bars that Cherif Kouachi met another radical imam, an al-Qaida-linked jihadi named Djamel Beghal. He'd been convicted in 2001 of plotting to bomb the U.S. embassy in Paris. They met initially through those yo-yo communications. Sciences Po researcher Myriam Benraad picks up the story.
BENRAAD: Beghal was very influential on Cherif, further convincing him that jihad was the right way and that once out, he had to do something.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And that completed the second phase of Kouachi's radicalization. The first was his directionless life in the Paris suburbs, which allowed him to fall under the spell of a local imam. And then the second - his exposure to hard-core jihadis behind bars. So all the pieces for Kouachi's radicalization were in place by the time he was released from prison in 2008. His brother went to Yemen to train with al-Qaida's affiliate there in 2009. Officials say Cherif Kouachi went two years later. Then everything went quiet and French officials stopped watching them. Then last August the U.S. started bombing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq. Myriam Benraad said she believes that made Cherif Kouachi snap.
BENRAAD: I think the third phase is the re-engagement Iraq. Iraq was still something that he was feeling as a missed opportunity or something he hadn't achieved as planned.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So according to this theory, he decided to attack in France. And he took aim at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo.
BENRAAD: And they knew that by striking Charlie Hebdo, they would basically become famous and recognized by the whole jihadi arena.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And complete the radicalization that began more than a decade ago. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
GREENE: And later today on All Things Considered, Dina will have more reporting on radicalization and specifically, the role of French prisons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.