Peter Cherif

Peter Cherif is a French foreign fighter with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Cherif has been imprisoned in Iraq, Syria, and France on terrorism charges, including at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2005.Peter Taylor, “Radicalising Europe’s young Muslims,” BBC News, September 1, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/5301512.stm. Cherif was arrested in Djibouti in December 2018 and extradited to France, where he was charged with criminal association with a terrorist enterprise.Rory Mulholland, “Islamist suspected of helping organise 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack handed terror charges,” Telegraph (London), December 24, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/24/islamist-suspected-helping-organise-2015-charlie-hebdo-attack/.

Cherif began fighting with ISIS forerunner al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. In 2006, an Iraqi court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for illegally crossing the border into Iraq.“Designations of Foreign Terrorist Fighters,” U.S. Department of State, September 29, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/247433.htm. Cherif escaped from prison in March 2007 during an insurgent attack on the prison. He traveled to Syria, where he surrendered to French authorities in early 2008. Cherif claimed he had given up on terrorism.Sebastian Rotella, “How France Let the Charlie Hebdo Killers Go Free,” Daily Beast, June 4, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/04/how-france-let-the-charlie-hebdo-killers-go-free.html. French authorities extradited Cherif and he spent 18 months in a French prison before he was released on bail pending trial. Toward the end of his trial, Cherif escaped to Yemen and the French court sentenced him in absentia to five years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization.“Designations of Foreign Terrorist Fighters,” U.S. Department of State, September 29, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/247433.htm. U.S. and French officials suspect Cherif played a central role in the January 2015 attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, though he has not been charged.Sebastian Rotella, “How France Let the Charlie Hebdo Killers Go Free,” Daily Beast, June 4, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/04/how-france-let-the-charlie-hebdo-killers-go-free.html. In December 2018, the Paris prosecutor’s office did not include Peter Cherif on a list of 14 people suspected of assisting the Kouachi brothers or Ahmed Coulibaly.Rory Mulholland, “Islamist suspected of helping organise 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack handed terror charges,” Telegraph (London), December 24, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/24/islamist-suspected-helping-organise-2015-charlie-hebdo-attack/.

Cherif grew up in France and was known as a class clown in school.Tracy McNicoll and Christopher Dickey, “Paris Jihadis Were ‘All Molotov Cocktails,’” Daily Beast, January 10, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/10/paris-jihadis-were-all-molotov-cocktails.html. Cherif’s mother was born in Tunisia. His father, a Catholic Afro-Caribbean immigrant, died when Cherif was 14.Sebastian Rotella, “A Couple Divided By Faith,” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2006, http://articles.latimes.com/2006/aug/08/world/fg-juliet8. As a teenager, Cherif ran into legal trouble relating to drugs and armed robbery.Sebastian Rotella, “How France Let the Charlie Hebdo Killers Go Free,” Daily Beast, June 4, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/04/how-france-let-the-charlie-hebdo-killers-go-free.html. He went on to join the army until he was injured in 2002.Sebastian Rotella, “How France Let the Charlie Hebdo Killers Go Free,” Daily Beast, June 4, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/04/how-france-let-the-charlie-hebdo-killers-go-free.html. He converted to Islam in 2003“Five years jail for Frenchman arrested in Iraq,” Radio France Internationale, March 10, 2011, http://www.english.rfi.fr/france/20110310-french-man-arrested-iraq-sentenced-5-years-prison. and reportedly radicalized under the influence of Farid Benyettou, a 22-year-old radical imam in Buttes Chaumont, France. Three other disciples of Benyettou went on to become suicide bombers in Iraq.Peter Taylor, “Radicalising Europe’s young Muslims,” BBC News, September 1, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/5301512.stm. Benyettou has also been tied to Chérif Kouachi, who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015 alongside his brother Said.Tracy McNicoll and Christopher Dickey, “Paris Jihadis Were ‘All Molotov Cocktails,’” Daily Beast, January 10, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/10/paris-jihadis-were-all-molotov-cocktails.html. Peter Cherif is responsible for introducing Kouachi to Benyettou, according to French judicial records.Sebastian Rotella, “How France Let the Charlie Hebdo Killers Go Free,” Daily Beast, June 4, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/04/how-france-let-the-charlie-hebdo-killers-go-free.html.

Cherif became more religious while attending Benyettou’s makeshift mosque. He stopped listening to music and watching movies, activities prohibited by strict Islamic law. He began wearing traditional Islamic clothing. Cherif ended his intimate relationship with his girlfriend—a white, French, half-Christian, half-Jewish woman named Barbara—and told her they could no longer touch or be alone together. In May 2004, he told his family he was going to spend a few months studying in Syria. By that November, he had crossed into Iraq to fight with AQI.Peter Taylor, “Radicalising Europe’s young Muslims,” BBC News, September 1, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/5301512.stm.

As of 2015, the U.S. government believed Cherif was still in Yemen, but a French newspaper reported he was in Syria.Elsa Buchanan, “Isis: Who is on the US most-wanted jihadists list?,” International Business Times, October 1, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/isis-who-are-us-most-wanted-jihadists-list-1522031. The Wall Street Journal reported Cherif made his living trafficking counterfeit goods.David Gauthier-Villars, “France Identifies Security Gaps, but Fixing Them Proves Challenging,” Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/france-identifies-security-gaps-but-fixing-them-proves-challenging-1426881960. U.S. and French authorities believe Cherif remains active with AQAP.Sebastian Rotella, “How France Let the Charlie Hebdo Killers Go Free,” Daily Beast, June 4, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/04/how-france-let-the-charlie-hebdo-killers-go-free.html.

Authorities in Djibouti arrested Cherif on December 21, 2018. He was subsequently extradited to France and taken into custody by local authorities on December 23, 2018.Rory Mulholland, “Islamist suspected of helping organise 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack handed terror charges,” Telegraph (London), December 24, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/24/islamist-suspected-helping-organise-2015-charlie-hebdo-attack/.

United States

The U.S. Department of State designated Peter Cherif as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on September 29, 2015.“Designations of Foreign Terrorist Fighters,” U.S. Department of State, September 29, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/247433.htm.

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