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Is Chérif Kouachi a classic case of prison radicalisation?

By Romain Quivooij - posted Friday, 23 January 2015

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, commentators have highlighted the central role of prisons in the radicalisation of juvenile delinquents. This was observed by political scientist Myriam Benraad who said "passage through French prisons plays a key role". Illustrative of this argument are Mohammed Merah and Mehdi Nemmouche, two young Franco-Algerian responsible for the deadly shooting of eight people in the city of Toulouse in 2012 and four people in Brussels in 2013, respectively. Both spent time in French jails. Mohammed Merah spent 21 months behind bars while Mehdi Nemmouche was incarcerated for five years.

Prison dynamics

Two major events explain why prisons have become a central argument in accounting for Chérif Kouachi's radicalisation. The first event was his encounter in jail with Djamel Beghal, an historical figure of French Jihadism who was active at the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s. Djamel Beghal was released in 2009, three years after Chérif Kouachi, but was sent back to prison in 2010. The judge who studied Djamel Beghal's network during this short interval, branded Chérif Kouachi as his "student", which suggests that a long-established mentoring relationship existed between the two men. The second event involves his meeting with Amedy Coulibaly, a meeting that also happened while the two were in jail. Chérif Kouachi even maintained personal ties with Amedy Coulibaly after his detention. The latter, who was also close to Djamel Beghal, led a series of parallel attacks which resulted in the death of five people, and stated that he "synchronized" his terrorist acts with those of Chérif Kouachi and his older brother, Saïd Kouachi.


These contacts tend to confirm that the Fleury-Mérogis jail was a breeding ground for radicals, where close interactions possibly contributed to an escalation of extreme positions. Known as group polarization, this phenomenon may have been central, especially given the potential role of Djamel Beghal as an internal source of radicalisation. The latter was described in 2010 by the French antiterrorist police as "the leader of a takfir operational cell". Additionally, Fleury-Mérogis is plagued by a set of issues which have been common to some French prisons for decades, including overcrowding, unsanitary environment and inmate violence. These poor conditions provide opportunities for extremist radicalisation and recruitment. However, bonds between Djamel Beghal and Chérif Kouachi should be put into proper perspective. According to an intercepted phone call by a French security service in 2010, Djamel Beghal was particularly critical about "Chérif" and told one of his accomplices "[not to] trust him".

Ideology makes sense

As extensively reported after the attacks, Chérif Kouachi had been jailed due to his involvement in "the Buttes-Cheaumont network" from 2003 to 2005, whose objective was to send recruits to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. His experience within the network seem to have created a more lasting impact than prison. Chérif Kouachi was introduced to a violent extremist ideology and exposed to dynamic frames or "schemes of interpretation". The latter play a central role in the perception of a phenomenon. It can be related to the way a message is packaged and the charisma of the person/entity behind the message. Propaganda videos related to the Abu Ghraib scandal, a U.S.-led prison in Iraq where human rights violations were committed by American soldiers, resulted in the development of a strong sense of injustice and the feeling of a common destiny with Iraqi "brothers" based on a shared Muslim identity. These incentives were reinforced by the prominent role of Farid Benyettou, perceived by other members of the group as a credible religious leader who convinced his disciples that defensive jihad in Iraq was well founded. His preachings provided an additional, if not central, motivation to commit acts of terror.

According to his former lawyer, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi (his brother also joined the network but was not convicted) "had the feeling to integrate a family, to have a purpose in life". This assessment implies that the network fulfilled a deep-seated personal need. It seems to be meaningful, considering the chaotic youth of the Kouachi brothers and their lack of opportunities at the time of their involvement with the network. The influence of the ideology was further compounded by its resonance with Chérif Kouachi's initial grievances. The "root causes" theory provides an incomplete and possibly biased interpretation of radicalisation by focusing exclusively on externally caused tensions. However, it is plausible to assume that the core tenets of defensive Jihad resonated with strains experienced or construed as such by Chérif Kouachi, be it of social, religious and/or ethnic nature. Moreover, it appears that a process of ideological legitimation took place, as Chérif Kouachi used this experience to channel personal feelings of resentment against the Jewish community in Paris.

The premises of a radical identity?

Little is known of the relationship between Djamel Beghal, Chérif Kouachi and Amedi Coulibaly while the three men were jailed together. By contrast, socialization and mobilisation within the Buttes-Cheaumont network clearly favoured collective identity construction, understood as the process by which attitudes, commitments and behaviours of a movement are gradually determined. It should be noted that the group was isolated and used to meet at Farid Benyettou's apartment. This possibly increased peer pressure which further convinced Chérif Kouachi of the justification for armed violence, especially against Jewish targets. Additionally, the organization relied on personal connections. Such affective dynamics are known to further radicalise beliefs, values and behaviours, while creating a strong impediment to leave the group, usually referred to as an "antidote for leaving".


However, two elements tend to go against the idea that Chérif Kouachi's firm decision to resort to armed violence would have happened during this experience. First, if one is to give credit to Farid Benyettou's recent declarations, Chérif Kouachi would have made travel arrangements to Iraq before his actual involvement in the network. Second, his lawyer reported that in 2005 he was "relieved" to be arrested by the French police, as "he was afraid, had he shied away from his obligations, to be considered a coward". Additionally, a social worker who was in contact with Chérif Kouachi during his detention explained that he was clearly aware that Farid Benyettou had "pulled wool over his eyes". These indicators provide useful perspectives on the real influence of the Buttes-Cheaumont network, but it does not follow that imprisonment would have been a complete game-changer. Rather, jail experience supported a radicalisation process which lasted at least eleven years, the end of which was as tragic as it was challenging to predict.

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About the Author

Romain Quivooij is an Associate Research Fellow at the Center of Excellence for National Security, Singapore.

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