A former investigative reporter worried that Cherif Kouachi — one of the brothers behind the terrorist attack in Paris last Wednesday — had been irreversibly radicalized in 2005 and feared he was potentially dangerous.
Mark Houser, who met with Kouachi's lawyer, feared that French authorities did not give him a harsh enough sentence after discovering his role in a terrorist operation.
It became clear that these fears were founded last week when Kouachi, 32, and his brother Said, 34, stormed the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper’s offices and murdered 12 people.
“Like everyone I’m shocked and saddened by the killings in Paris. And like many people I’m also wondering if they might have been avoided,” Houser said in an interview with Yahoo News. “If France had kept him in custody or put him in prison for a long sentence… It’s unfortunate that authorities there thought a three-year sentence was sufficient.”
In January 2005, French police arrested Kouachi and two other young men for trying to travel to Syria and sneak across the border into Iraq to join other jihadists in their fight against American and Iraqi soldiers, according to news reports at the time.
Houser learned about Kouachi while writing a series of stories on radical Muslims throughout Europe for the right-leaning Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“It was frightening to think about dangerous militants living in Western society,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to better understand the history of Muslims in countries like France.”
Houser, now an editor and adjunct professor of communication for Robert Morris University, says he was interested in the delicate balance Western governments need to maintain in trying to clamp down on terrorism while upholding their democratic ideals.
"If you go too far in one direction, we have things like the CIA torture report and NSA snooping," he said. "But on the other hand, if you release people from prison who you suspect might be dangerous, you have to track them forever or this might happen."
In 2010, Cherif Kouachi landed in court again on suspicion of trying to help a convicted terrorist break out of jail, Reuters reported.
France's Ministry of Justice placed him under judicial control, which means he was not permitted to leave the country. Still, he managed to sneak into Yemen for training with weaponry, according to the wire service.
French intelligence stopped monitoring the brothers in June 2014 after officials determined that they were no longer dangerous, local magazine L'Express reported.
After the 2005 arrest, Houser wrote that Kouachi’s attorney, Vincent Olivier, claimed his client was having second thoughts about joining the insurgency and was even grateful to have been captured.
“When I met the attorney, that was a shocking moment, frankly,” he said.
Olivier said Kouachi, then 22, was not particularly religious, smoked marijuana, drank alcohol, and had sex with his girlfriend, according to the report.
Three years after the arrest, Kouachi stood trial. He faced up to 10 years in prison but was sentenced to just three years, with an 18-month suspended sentence, and got credit for time served, the Tribune-Review reported. He was released immediately.
Houser said he was skeptical of Olivier’s claims at the time and thought the criminal justice system was too lenient with Kouachi.
“Are you serious?” he recalled thinking. “Do you think this is enough to stop this sort of threat? Hopefully things are changing.”
On Friday, two days after the attack, Cherif and Said Kouachi were killed after a standoff with police outside Paris.
Houser also met with the imam at the Great Mosque of Paris, which the government built to honor the Muslim soldiers who fought and died for France in the trenches of WWI.
Muslims “are a permanent part of the society,” he said. “The majority of Muslims in Europe are there for a reason. They wanted to live there and are glad to be citizens of their countries.”
Houser says it is important that Westerners — while confronting terrorism — do not associate all Muslims with a violent hatred of Western society.
He hopes the “Je suis Ahmed” slogan, which emerged to honor the Muslim police officer who died in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff, will help confront Islamophobia.
“That’s a powerful statement,” Houser said. “I hope people take the lesson from it.”