Paris attacks: Imam describes Cherif Kouachi as a 'very good guy who was always smiling'

Mehdi Bouzid said the gunman felt he did not 'belong' in France

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The Independent Online

One of the two gunmen who massacred 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices before going on a three-day rampage through Paris has been described as a “very good guy”.

Mehdi Bouzid, an imam in Aubervilliers, Paris, said he had known Cherif Kouachi before he became even more radicalised about three years ago.

He and his brother, Said Kouachi, were killed by police yesterday when they burst out of a print works where they had been holding a hostage, firing at officers.

It has since emerged that they were known to authorities and put on international “no-fly” lists because of their connections to international terrorist networks.

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The Kouachi brothers getting out a car at the start of their attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices

Cherif, 32, was jailed for three years in 2008 for his role in the “Buttes-Chaumont network” sending militants to Iraq and had been trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Mr Bouzid said he had tried to persuade Cherif not to go abroad to fight.

“Cherif was a very good guy but I lost him two or three years ago,” he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I played football with him. I spoke with him the first time he wanted to go to Iraq, to tell him it is not a solution, you don't know for whom you are fighting.

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French special forces snipers surrounding the Kouachi brothers at a print works in Dammartin-en-Goele

“It's very easy in this district to tell some young people 'You will go to heaven, you will make some beautiful things', and I think Cherif fell in this trap.”

Speaking just hours before his death to BMF TV, Cherif told journalists he and his brother were “defenders of the Prophet”, apparently referring to Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons depicting Mohamed.

He called journalists "targets" and said he did not want to kill women and children but that "the West massacred them in Iraq and Afghanistan".

Mr Bouzid said he saw Cherif with his father two weeks ago, praying in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a working class district of the capital known for its racial diversity.

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French cartoonist Charb, publishing director of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, poses for photographs at their offices in Paris, September 19, 2012

"He was always smiling,” Mr Bouzid added. “I never suspected he could do such a thing. When we saw the footage, I recognised the way he walks in the video, I recognised his voice.”

Mr Bouzid said that Kouachi may have been motivated by a desire for “vengeance” over suffering in Muslim countries which he blamed on the West, as well as a feeling that he did not “belong” in France.

“I’m not justifying any attacks but when you look at their past, when you don't have an identity, when you don't belong, you can do something very, very nasty,” he added.

“When you know that something hurts me, you have to respect me, and Charlie Hebdo don't respect that.

"When you have a Muslim name it is very difficult to find a job, to make your prayer, to wear your veil.”

The imam said he felt he was being stared at with “fear, anger and hate” when visiting Paris yesterday, predicting “bad things in France” as racial tensions rise.

A unity rally attended by President Francois Hollande, David Cameron and prominent world leaders is expected to attract a million people in Paris tomorrow.

Additional reporting by PA

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