13 Jan 2015

Friend of Paris jihadis: ‘There are no quick answers’

Home Affairs Correspondent

A man who knew the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings, tells Channel 4 News how he tried to stop Cherif Kouachi from going to Iraq, and what made him prone to radicalisation.

Mehdi Bouzid was born and bred in France “And yet,” he told me, “when French people look at me, they do not see me as French, they see me as a Muslim first.”

Mr Bouzid is an imam at a mosque in Aubervilliers, in the suburb of Paris where the gunmen Cherif and Said Kouachi grew up. He knew them well and talked to me about what may have influenced them.

“Many young men growing up here, they feel they have no hope, no opportunities.” And yet, he stresses, this is no excuse for what they did. “I condemn what they did, it is not right.”

He is wary of journalists, feeling that too many want to portray Islam in a negative way and to look for quick answers to what was behind the attacks. “But there are no quick or easy answers.” He speaks eloquently about the poverty and unemployment in the area, which can make some men vulnerable to radicalisation.

Combating radical Islam online

Mr Bouzid says it’s also difficult to counter the radical message being spread online. These themes are familiar to Britain, where the authorities have struggled to prevent extremists from influencing young men. But Mr Bouzid feels the Muslim community in France face particular difficulties.

The Kouachi brothers were petty criminals who were radicalised when they became involved in a network known as the Buttes Chamont network, named after the leafy park where they met to train. Members of the group were convicted of sending French fighters to Iraq in 2008. “I tried to tell Cherif not to go to Iraq, to tell him it is not a solution.”

Spiritual leader

French authorities believe the group were influenced by a radical preacher named Farid Benyettou, who was jailed alongside Cherif in 2008. Mr Benyettou left prison in 2011 and it’s emerged that he has since begun training as nurse at the A&E department of city hospital. Ironically, he was supposed to have been on shift at the weekend and could have treated some of the victims of his former proteges.

The hospital confirmed to Channel 4 News that Mr Benyettou was working there but said that they had “advised him not to come in”. He had almost finished his course, gaining 80 per cent of his diploma and the story has raised interesting questions about the issue of rehabilitation.

“He wanted to take a second chance, now it’s gone. I feel very sad for him,” Mr Bouzid told me.