The 27-year-old man photographed in 2009 seemed to represent hope springing from Paris’s desperate suburbs. Part of a work-insertion program, he was about to meet then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was trying to combat high youth unemployment.
Politicians were not exactly popular in the suburban projects, he told Le Parisien, but he nonetheless hoped to collect autographs for his family. “In a pinch, maybe the president can help me get hired,” he said.
The man was Amedy Coulibaly, who was killed Friday after seizing hostages in a Jewish supermarket in Paris, an attack he claimed was in support of the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq & Al-Sham. A close associate of Said and Chérif Kouachi, the two brothers who attacked the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo Wednesday, Coulibaly is a symbol of the huge challenges lying ahead for France.
The attack on the magazine, which left 12 dead, and Coulibaly’s apparently coordinated actions, which resulted in the deaths of a police officer Thursday and four hostages Friday, highlight the growing problem of radicalization among young, disenfranchised French Muslims.
The Kouachis — Said, 34, and Chérif, 32 — and Coulibaly, 32, were born in France, but struggled to find a place as they came of age in the suburbs outside Paris.
The brothers, orphaned at a young age, turned to Muslim extremism in their 20s. Media reports said they held menial jobs. Coulibaly fell into crime before he turned 18, and by the time he was meeting Mr. Sarkozy he had served four prison sentences for robbery and drug trafficking, according to Libération.
Coulibaly befriended Chérif Kouachi around 2005 when they were imprisoned in Fleury-Mérogis, south of Paris. Kouachi had been arrested as he prepared to leave for Iraq to join insurgents battling U.S. forces.
In prison they met Djamel Beghal, who was serving a sentence for a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Paris. Beghal would become something of a mentor, and in 2010 all three were arrested for a plot to break another jihadi, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, out of prison.
Beghal, the ringleader, remains in prison. Coulibaly was sentenced to five years, but with time served was released last year. Charges against Chérif Kouachi were dismissed, although the prosecutor said he was committed to radical Islam and believed in the legitimacy of armed jihad.
The radicalization of incarcerated young men is a recognized problem in a country where Muslims make up a disproportionate share of the prison population. Statistics based on religion or ethnicity are not kept, but researchers estimate between a third and a half of French prisoners are Muslim. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, but Muslims still make up less than 10% of the overall French population.
In 2013, Manuel Valls, French interior minister at the time, spoke of the “enemy within” after it emerged Mohamed Merah, who killed four Jews and three soldiers in Toulouse in 2012 before being shot by police, had become radicalized while jailed for theft.
“They start with petty crime, move on to drug trafficking, sometimes prison, leading to conversion to radical Islam and hatred for the West,” Mr. Valls, now prime minister, told Le Parisien. “There are several dozen Merahs in France today. Not all of them take action, but we have to guard against it.”
This week’s assaults by homegrown Islamist terrorists are expected to boost the fortunes of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, far-right National Front. But it would take a seismic shift to vault the party into power.
Randall Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian & Eurasian Studies at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said Ms. Le Pen’s gains would be short-lived, largely confined to those who are already sympathetic to her platform.
“I might be wrong, but I’d be surprised if over the medium term she pushes much above 25% in the polls,” he said.
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He said he expects rhetoric in France to toughen and security policies to be tightened, but little fundamental changes to how immigrants are treated. He noted most young French Muslims do not become radicalized, despite living in poverty.
“I’m optimistic and pessimistic. Because of all the liberal, democratic constraints, I don’t think this is going to change the situation for Muslims in France in an extremely negative way,” he said.
“I’m pessimistic because ideas matter … Nothing is harder to kill than an idea, and jihadism is a powerful, poisonous idea. We can do something about poverty. We can do something about housing. This is much harder to do something about. The problem is real and it is going to continue.”