Jason Burke reports: The path is well-trodden: from a tough housing estate in a western city, through a scruffy, colourful, traffic-choked capital 3,500 miles away, on to one of the country’s religious schools, and eventually into a violent extremist organisation.
The journey has been made by thousands of young western Muslim men over the two decades or more that contemporary Islamic militancy has posed a deadly international threat. Many are converts, including some of the most wanted militants today. Some are followers, rather than leaders. Some are already committed to an extremist agenda, even if they have yet to act. Many return with a dogmatic, sometimes hate-filled, world view, but remain non-violent. Others return with the skills and contacts necessary to implement their, or their new leaders’, ambitions to kill and maim.
This weekend at least one new name, probably two, have been added to the list: Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the brothers who killed 12 people in the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week. Details of the Kouachis’ travels are still unclear but it appears both spent time in Yemen over the past five years.
Speaking to French TV channel BFM on Friday afternoon, as police commandoes prepared for the final assault, Chérif, 32, said he had travelled to Yemen in 2011. His expenses were paid by the American-Yemeni extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was influential within al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) and one of the most popular radical propagandists in the world. “It was a while ago, before al-Awlaki was killed,” he told BFM. Al-Awlaki died in a suspected US drone strike in September 2011.
Saïd, 34, had also travelled to Yemen, attending the Iman University, which is headed by fundamentalist preacher Abdel Majeed al-Zindani, whose name figures on a US terror blacklist, according to a former Yemeni classmate interviewed by AFP. The classmate said he had lost track of Saïd between 2010 and 2013, when local rebel Houthi militiamen, who are from the Shia minority strand of Islam, overran a religious school in the small town of Dammaj, to the north of the capital Sa’ana, run by conservatives from the Sunni majority. The school, well- known in jihadi circles and to security agencies, was a destination for hundreds of foreigners, former students have said. [Continue reading…]