By Sebastian Rotella
The U.S. government has labeled as specially designated terrorists two French fugitives who during the past 15 years have risen from street crime to alleged front-line roles in the Charlie Hebdo attacks and terrorist violence in Tunisia and Syria.
The announcement today by the State Department targeted Peter Cherif and Boubaker Hakim. They are former members of a crew of a dozen young militants from the Buttes-Chaumont neighborhood in northeast Paris who went to Iraq to fight U.S. troops in 2003. Some died in battle, while others were arrested and eventually convicted of terrorist offenses in France.
As ProPublica recently reported in a story that examined the Buttes-Chaumont crew, the foreign fighter threat has been exacerbated by Europe’s weak prison sentencing policies for terrorism and other violent crimes. French counterterror officials say that both Cherif and Hakim could still be behind bars if French courts had imposed stiffer punishment for their well-documented exploits as al Qaida militants fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.
Despite aggressive intelligence work and strong antiterror laws, European terrorists often serve less than ten years for offenses that would carry terms of 20 years to life in the United States. Many European foreign fighters now joining ISIL and al Qaeda are repeat offenders who did time for terrorism and have returned to the fray, according to counter-terror officials. This worsens a rise in radicalization and the unprecedented number of foreign fighters, challenging the capacity of European counter-terror agencies to monitor suspected terrorists.
By labeling militants as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, the U.S. government uses an executive order to sanction them, block any assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prevent U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with them. The measure is used to single out prominent terrorists to governments around the world.
Cherif, 32, is now believed to be in Yemen with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, according to the State Department. French and U.S. counterterror officials say Cherif played a key role in this year’s plot against the Charlie Hebdo magazine.
In 2011, he allegedly helped provide al Qaida training, direction and funds to Cherif Koauchi, a fellow member of the Buttes-Chaumont crew who visited him in Yemen, according to French and U.S officials. Kouachi, his brother and another terrorist died in shootouts after killing 17 people during the attacks in Paris in January.
Hakim, 31, is a foreign fighter with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the State Department said. In 2013, he released a video claiming responsibility for the assassinations of two Tunisian political leaders — a claim that Western and Tunisian investigators believe is accurate.
He also allegedly worked with the Ansar al Sharia terrorist group to target Western diplomats in North Africa, according to the State Department.
Hakim later made his way to Syria, where he is now a lead figure recruiting ISIL fighters from Tunisia — U.S. officials estimate that as many as 8,000 Tunisians have joined the group — and elsewhere in North Africa, according to counterterror officials.
The State Department designated a total of 10 people and five groups in a redoubled U.S. campaign against the threat posed by the unprecedented number of foreign fighters flocking to Syria and Iraq, most of them to join the Islamic State. The Treasury Department also designated 15 ISIL facilitators on Tuesday.
The designations “highlight the scope of the foreign terrorist fighter challenge facing the international community,” the State Department said in a statement.
Read senior reporter Sebastian Rotella’s story about the refugee crisis in Europe.
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