The incurious probe into Paris terrorist's arms suppliers


In January 2015, a series of terrorist attacks in Paris left 17 people dead, including 11 at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and four Jewish men in a kosher supermarket. The attack on the kosher store was carried out by Amedy Coulibaly in the name of the so-called Islamic State group. A number of weapons later found at the scene and at his home transited via an arms trafficking network in northern France which had been the object of several lengthy police surveillance operations. So why have magistrates in charge of investigating the itinerary of the arms still not questioned those involved in the surveillance? Karl Laske reports.

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French magistrates heading investigations into the itinerary of the weapons used in the January 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, which left 17 people dead and 22 wounded, have shown little interest in establishing the failures of the different police services responsible for the surveillance of arms trafficking networks in northern France via which the guns had transited.

Ultimately at stake is the responsibility of the French State. The surveillance was mounted separately by regional services of both the national police force and the gendarmerie, a distinct police corps (and which broadly polices rural and semi-rural areas).

It was a gendarmerie informer who bought the weapons used by Amedy Coulibaly, the 32-year-old delinquent-turned-terrorist who, in the name of the Islamic State group, murdered five people during the notorious January 2015 attacks in Paris which began with the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

The attacks were spread over three days, beginning on the late morning of January 7th 2015 when brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi shot 11 people dead in their attack on Charlie Hebdo, and who claimed they were acting in the name of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. On the morning of January 8th, Coulibaly, who was associated with the Kouachi brothers, shot dead a policewoman in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, and the following afternoon he attacked a kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, located on the south-east Paris boundary with the suburb of Vincennes, where he took customers and staff hostage, killing four.

Bullet impacts on the glass doors of the Hyper Cacher store after the firefight in which Amedy Coulibaly was killed. © Reuters Bullet impacts on the glass doors of the Hyper Cacher store after the firefight in which Amedy Coulibaly was killed. © Reuters

Coulibaly was killed in a firefight, hours later, when police stormed the shop. The Kouachi brothers were also shot dead at the end of their separate siege of a printer’s offices in Dammartin-en-Goële, north-east of the capital.

The gendarmerie informer who bought the weapons later used by Coulibaly, arms dealer Claude Hermant, who said he did so in full knowledge of the gendarmerie, had been the object of an eight-month surveillance operation mounted by police investigators based in Lille, north-east France.

Mediapart can reveal that Hermant’s arms trading was the subject of a report by a regional domestic intelligence body, the “Direction zonale du renseignement intérieur”, and also by a high-ranking police officer in the north-east region, Philippe Patisson, who is now the chief coordinating officer in France of the Police and Customs Cooperation Centre, a Europe-wide structure for bilateral cooperation between police and customs investigators in border regions.

In all, five – and possibly six – French investigation services, including customs, are implicated in the failure to prevent the black-market weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. But for the past two-and-a-half years, the justice system has had at its disposal all the evidence needed to establish these failings in the case. Instead, its investigations have ignored the information and focussed elsewhere.

  • Omissions and delays

In their report to the Paris public prosecutor’s office on January 20th 215, a police serious crime unit, the Brigade criminelle, and the anti-terrorist branch did not mention the purchase by a small Lille-based company, Seth-Outdoor, of an automatic rifle and five handguns that were bought via the internet from a Slovakian firm, AFG. All six weapons were found to have been in Coulibaly’s possession, retrieved variously at the scene of his attack on the kosher store and also in his apartment. The arms, which were sold by the Slovak firm as deactivated weapons, and the Lille company which bought them were identified in cooperation with Interpol.

But the January 20th police report did not mention this, focussing instead on two quite different leads. One of these was a Belgian arms collector who had bought a Slovakian automatic rifle found at the kosher shop which was attacked by Coulibaly, and the other concerned a Kurdish national living in the Belgian town of Charleroi who was involved, several months before the Paris attacks, in the purchase from Coulibaly of a Mini Cooper.

As of January 20th 2015, Claude Hermant, the Lille dealer who bought the six deactivated weapons from Slovakia, and who was close to a local far-right movement, was taken into custody by police, along with his girlfriend. While he was never directly questioned about the Paris terrorist attacks, he told detectives that he had become aware that “the weapons cited” after the attacks could have been those which he said he supplied to a man called Samir during what he described as “infiltration operations for the gendarmerie”.

During the questioning, Hermant discovered that Samir Ladjali had since June 2014 been the object of a police investigation into an arms trafficking business, opened in December 2013. Hermant’s DNA was found on one of the weapons.  

It was not until June 22nd 2015, five months after the Paris attacks, that investigating magistrate Nathalie Poux, specialised in anti-terrorist cases, officially informed investigating magistrates in Lille of the details passed on by Interpol identifying the weapons bought by Hermant and which ended up in Coulabily’s hands.  The Lille magistrates, heading investigations into the arms trafficking involving Samir Ladjali, had until then made no official connection with the Paris attacks.

Judge Poux wrote to her colleagues: “Four semi-automatic Tokarev pistols in Amedy Coulibaly’s possession are formally identified as having been sold by Seth-Outdoor, while another semi-automatic pistol and a CZ assault rifle are liable to have come from Seth-Outdoor.” Poux asked for the Lille magistrates to pass on to her the transcripts of their interviews of suspects and witnesses, and information they had relating to “the relationships of Claude Hermant and others placed under investigation with those people who may have supplied weapons to Amedy Coulibaly”.

  • A chance interception?

On August 12th 2015, Lille magistrate Stanislas Sandraps, in charge of investigations into the Hermant case, passed on to Poux the information requested by her. In his reply, Judge Sandraps maintained the erroneous suggestion that Hermant and his companion had been arrested on January 20th by chance. He wrote that in the framework of the arms trafficking investigation launched in 2013, phone taps and surveillance of suspects had collected “but few elements”.

“It was in the end the customs services which received information according to which the Seth-Outdoor company belonging to the companion of Claude Hermant received from Slovakia weapons which were not, or only partially, deactivated,” wrote Sandraps. It was supposedly a weapons delivery intercepted by customs officers on January 20th which led to the arrest of Hermant and his companion.

However, already on January 24th 2015, regional daily La Voix du Nord ran article under the headline, “Arms traffick: will the judicial police link the ultra-right with Coulibaly?” The daily reported: “The questioning in custody of Claude Hermant, a figure of the regional ultra-right, continued this Thursday. According to different sources, investigators are looking at a possible link between the suspected arms trafficking and the attacks perpetrated in the Paris region. For the time being, nothing has been officially confirmed.”

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