PARIS — The bloody denouement Friday of two hostage crises at different ends of Paris means attention will now shift to the question facing the French government: How did several jihadis — and possibly a larger cell of co-conspirators — manage to evade surveillance and execute a bold attack despite being well known to the country’s police and intelligence services?
On its own, the Wednesday attack that left 12 people dead at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo represented a major breakdown for French security and intelligence forces, especially after authorities confirmed that the two suspects, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had known links to the militant group al-Qaida in Yemen.
On Friday, even as police had cornered the Kouachi brothers inside a printing factory in the northeast suburbs, another militant, Amedy Coulibaly — who has since been linked to the Kouachis — stormed a kosher supermarket in Paris and threatened to kill hostages if the police captured the Kouachis.
“There is a clear failing,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French television Friday. “When 17 people die, it means there were cracks.”
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A U.S. official, speaking about the failure to identify the plot, said that French intelligence and law-enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachi brothers after Saïd returned from Yemen, but later lessened that monitoring or dropped it to focus on what were believed to be bigger threats.
“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”
The official acknowledged that U.S. spy agencies tracked Westerners, particularly young men, traveling in and out of Yemen much more closely after a failed al-Qaida plot to blow up an airliner on Christmas 2009. But the official said the United States left the monitoring of the Kouachi brothers and other French citizens in France to that country’s security services.
One reason for the lapses may be that the number of possible jihadis inside France has continued to expand. France has seen 1,000 to 2,000 citizens go to fight in Syria or Iraq, with about 200 returning, and the task of surveillance has grown overwhelming.
The questions facing French intelligence services will begin with the attack at Charlie Hebdo.
Authorities knew that striking the satirical newspaper and its editor, for their vulgar treatment of the Prophet Muhammad, had been a goal that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had stated through its propaganda journal, Inspire.
Intelligence officers also had identified the Kouachi brothers as being previously involved in jihad-related activities, for which Chérif was convicted in 2008. Investigators also have linked Chérif to a plot to free from prison an Islamic militant convicted of the 1995 bombing of a French subway station, and French news organizations have reported that Coulibaly was also implicated in that case.
Much remains unclear about the three suspects and whether they were working in a coordinated fashion. But the French apparently knew, or presumably should have known, that Saïd had traveled in 2011 to Yemen.
News reports Friday said Saïd had met with the U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula member and propagandist, who was later killed by a U.S. drone strike.
Security officials and acquaintances said Kouachi’s travels in Yemen stretched from 2009 until at least 2012.
Mohammed Al-Kibsi, a journalist, said he met Saïd Kouachi in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in January 2010. At the time, Al-Kibsi was working on an article about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 in a plot that intelligence officials believed was guided by al-Awlaki.
While looking for Abdulmutallab’s house, Al-Kibsi said he came across Saïd Kouachi playing soccer with a group of children. Kouachi told him that he and Abdulmutallab were friends: They had lived together for a week or two, a few months before the bombing attempt. They were both learning Arabic at the Sanaa Institute for Arabic Language, and both worshipped at the same local mosque, he said.
Yemen has been a U.S. priority, not a French one, intelligence analysts said Friday, making it likely that the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were put lower on the French priority list, the analysts said.
For French authorities, the basic questions are why they had not monitored the three men more aggressively and why the offices of Charlie Hebdo were not better protected.
Jean-Charles Brisard, head of the French Center for Analysis of Terrorism, said there were simply not enough police and security officers to keep full monitoring on everyone who goes through prison.
“It’s a problem of resources,” Brisard said. “To follow a person 24 hours a day you need at least 20 people. And you cannot impose surveillance on everyone, even legally it’s impossible.”