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Al Qaeda Trained Suspect in Paris Terror Attack, Official Says

One of the two brothers suspected of killing 12 people at a satirical newspaper in Paris traveled to Yemen in 2011 and received terrorist training from Al Qaeda's affiliate there before returning to France, a senior American official said Thursday.

The suspect, Saïd Kouachi, 34, spent "a few months" training in small arms combat, marksmanship and other skills that appeared to be on display in videos of the military-style attack on Wednesday carried out by at least two gunmen on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper.

Both French and American officials were aware that Mr. Kouachi had trained in Yemen. He went there at a time when many other young Muslim men in the West headed to Yemen, inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who by 2011 had become a senior operational figure for the terrorist group there, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Before he was killed in an American drone strike in September 2011, Mr. Awlaki repeatedly called for the killing of cartoonists who insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Kouachi as well as his younger brother Chérif, 32, have been under scrutiny for years by officials in France and the United States, and according to an American intelligence official both were in the American database of known or suspected terrorists and on the no-fly lists maintained by the government.

Chérif Kouachi first came to the attention of the French authorities as a possible terrorist a decade ago, when he was in his early 20s. He was arrested in France in 2005 as he prepared to leave for Syria, the first leg of a trip he hoped would take him to Iraq, and convicted three years later. He was released in 2008 for time served.

But the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, announced Thursday that Saïd Kouachi, described as unemployed, was now formally considered the "aggressor" in the case, indicating that investigators believe he was the driving force behind the massacre. He lived in Reims, a city east of Paris, where late Wednesday a heavily armed antiterrorist police unit raided his apartment in a concrete residential block.

Mr. Cazeneuve said Saïd "has never been prosecuted or convicted but has appeared on the periphery of judicial cases" involving his younger brother.

American intelligence and counterterrorism officials on Thursday were still trying to determine whether the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen had explicitly ordered Wednesday's attack. There was no indication that the masked men who carried it out were acting under orders from the group or were part of a larger militant cell in France. But as they launched their attack at Charlie Hebdo, according to witnesses, the pair proudly declared allegiance to the group.

"Tell the media that it is Al Qaeda in Yemen," the men shouted, referring to the terrorist outfit also known as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.

The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda had already declared its own interest in targeting the newspaper. A 2013 edition of the group's English-language propaganda magazine, Inspire, placed Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, on a list along with other prominent journalists, writers and public figures. "Wanted dead or alive for crimes against Islam," the magazine stated

While familiar to the French authorities, the two Kouachi brothers appear to have lived low-key lifestyles in and around Paris. Orphaned as children after the deaths of their parents, immigrants from Algeria, Chérif and Saïd were raised in foster care in Rennes, in western France. Chérif trained as a fitness instructor before moving to Paris, where he lived with his brother in the home of a convert to Islam.

[Source: By Eric Schmitt, Michael S. Schmidt and Andrew Higgins, The New York Times, Washington, 08Jan15]

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