Ouassini Cherifi: King of the “Hugo Boss Pants Fallen Off the Truck” and Prince of the Fake Passport

Cherifi
Ouassini Cherifi at his 2011 trial (AFP)

Cherifi is an important name from the early-to mid-2000s in the European terrorism scene.  I decided to write about him not because of recent revelations, but because a number of my previous articles have touched upon him.  I think his story, what there is of it to tell, deserves a fuller treatment, because he cuts across groups and plots, and some from those days continue to appear in today’s conspiracies.  Another reason has become apparent in the course of researching and writing it which I will touch upon in the conclusion.

Cherifi was born on May 9, 1974, in Villepinte to Algerian parents.  He obtained his Bac C (Baccalauréat Série C: Sciences with Mathematics concentration) and worked in computer services for PMU and as a reception manager for the Novotel in Aulnay-sous-Bois.  He was a new father.  At first blush, he was a successful, well-adjusted young man.  But not all was as it seemed.  As far as I can tell, he first appeared in the press under the name Ouaffiri Cherifi at the beginning of his trial on January 10, 2002.  He had been arrested nearly a year and a half earlier on August 21, 2000 while picking up some mail delivered to him at the site of his former employer, Novotel.

Cherifi Dreams of Martyrdom

The charge ultimately levelled against him after his arrest was “criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise” [association de malfaiteurs en relation avec une entreprise terroriste].  Customs authorities at Roissy intercepted a package from Thailand addressed to “Monsieur Bourgeois” at the Novotel.  Inside were four fake passports and falsified tax stamps among other things.  Authorities arrested Cherifi when he came to the hotel to retrieve them, and upon searching his home, they also found a machine to produce fraudulent credit cards.  Cherifi admitted to having the materials, but stated they were only used for common criminal activity to make money.  But other things found in his home and the construction of the fraudulent documents themselves would put the lie to that.

These other things consisted of jihadist literature, homemade videos of terrorists in the Bosnian and Algerian conflicts, and an audio tape of Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Most damning, however, was the discovery of phone numbers in his mobile phone for members of the Frankfurt Cell involved in the Strasbourg Christmas Market plot.  Furthermore, the phone showed regular contact with the Cell’s leader in London, Abu Doha.  Cherifi could no longer claim that the similarity in the production defects in his passports and those of the ones to be used by the Frankfurt Cell were a coincidence.  Some of this would not be a surprise for investigators, because it turns out that even by his 2000 arrest he was a known quantity.  His name had cropped up during investigations into extremist plots aimed at the 1998 World Cup in connection with Ridouane Khalid, a Frenchman who spent time in Guantanamo and whose brothers were also caught up in France-based plots to support jihadist causes.

Investigators discovered that following his abrupt resignation from his job in 1999, he traveled four times to London where he spent time in the mosques of Baker Street and Finsbury Park, two centers of radical recruitment in the city at the time.  His purpose was to join the jihad itself, and he had been making preparations to that end.  He liquidated the family’s accounts, made his will in which he left a portion of his possessions to the mujahideen, and crafted a letter to his son to be read in the event of his death, in which he urges the boy to fulfill his father’s dream of becoming a warrior of Islam and martyr of jihad.

But it was not to be.

Cherifi is diabetic and needs an injection of insulin every day.  In the eyes of his recruiters, this made him a battlefield liability and unfit for the typical jihad.  Be that as it may, he was sent back to France in another capacity.  Months after his arrest Strasbourg made clear what that involved.

For these offenses and for robberies and concealment of stolen goods (clothing, video games, electronic equipment), Cherifi was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison in May of 2002.  He was released early in March 2004, and assuming his detention prior to trial was counted, he served about 3.5 years of that sentence.  He returned to the spotlight in short order.

Groupe Cherifi

Cherifi’s time in prison (Châteaudun) was not in vain so far as the international jihad goes.  He found others serving time inclined to his way of thinking and made friends who would serve his purposes well once he re-emerged.  The extent of this networking revealed itself when law enforcement struck in the early hours of 12 December 2005, raiding homes and businesses and arresting over 20 individuals.  The matter of exactly how many were arrested seemed to be a matter of some debate in the press, as I have found the number 25, 27, and as high as 28.  Shortly thereafter the press reported that 11 (10 men and 1 woman) of those were indicted, but by the time it went to trial over 5 years later (3-28 January 2011) at the Cour d’assises in Paris, only 8 defendants remained: Cherifi; brothers Mourad, Hatem and Yassine Feridhi; Taoufik Boussedra; Hichem Ezzikouri; Mohamed Zerouali; and Manoubi ben Hadj Brahim.

Cherifi and his group of bandits were responsible for the March 2005 attack on a Chronopost parcel site in Fretin near Lille, as well as a brazen attack against the Securitas cash transport company in Beauvais (Picardie, Oise) on 7 October 2005.  Four attackers showed up at the facility in a black Peugot 306.  Three emerged from the vehicle with guns while the driver reversed into the garage door where the trucks took money out from the site.  They planted explosives on the wall adjoining the vault, but managed to create only a 20cm-wide opening.  Thousands of Euros were tantalizingly visible but extremely difficult to reach and they made off with nothing.

Details on the members of the group are scant, as most of the articles about them are variations of the same press feeds.  According to Le Figaro, Brahim (the 29-year-old Tunisian) and Ezzikouri (the Frenchman of Algerian origin born in Beauvais in 1981) seem to have been the regular hold up men for the group, while Cherifi served as the brains.  According to Liberation, Mourad Feridhi, a 34-year-old Tunisian operated a call shop business in Aubervilliers, with his brothers and Boussedra, another Tunisian, working for him.  I was unable to find anything on Zerouali.  Despite their more high-profile activities, the Cherifi group was primarily organized around telephone and Internet shops, and a restaurant, “Le Rendez-vous Gourmand,” in Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis) which, according to the accusation, served as a meeting place for the group, along with Feridhi’s shop.

In short order the members of the group owned up to the criminal activities in which they were engaged.  Brahim Ben Hadj even gave investigators two addresses, including a lock-up garage in the allée Angel-Testa in Clichy-Sous-Bois, where they found 1 kilo of TNT, 19 sticks of dynamite, two machine guns (a brand new French Famas and an old AK-47), three revolvers, hoods, gloves, black suits, spare magazines and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.  Police also found a radio transmitter, a blue flashing light of the type that is fixed to the roof of a car, police uniforms and bullet-proof vests.  Cherifi had even been wearing a bullet-proof vest when he was arrested, leading authorities to believe the group was in the process of their next heist.

According to Le Monde, Investigators quickly became convinced that the Cherifi group was focusing on robberies to fund the activities of groups associated with the Zarqawi network rather than executing their own plots.  The court ultimately accused Cherifi of travelling to Turkey in September 2005, where he is alleged to have met with jihadist groups and to have committed to funding their operations through his criminal activities.  Cherifi and his associates vehemently denied the notion that they were collecting money for the jihad but to no avail.  They were sentenced on 29 January 2011, and for the most part, we have not heard of them since.  One exception was Boussedra, who was released and deported to his home country of Tunisia on 16 February 2012.  The other is an intriguing mention of Cherif Kouachi as a stalwart friend of Mourad Feridhi while in prison together at Meaux.

The Friends of Cherifi

In light of the minimal information given from the trial, how is one to assess the particular accusations regarding terrorism against Cherifi and his associates?  Were they just a bunch of gangsters who may have held troublesome beliefs but were simply helping themselves to others’ property for personal gain, as they all claimed?  Or were they, as the authorities contend, doing their part to extend the fight against the West and punish their presence in the Middle East?  We have evidence already from Cherifi’s previous activities that there is more to his pilfery than the desire to avoid an honest day’s work.  It’s through the stories of men who weren’t prosecuted in this instance that we might gain the greatest insight.

Jamal Oulahsen

One of the men initially indicted who did not come to trial was Jamal Oulahsen.  Oulahsen was called in by the authorities on 12 December 2005 to answer questions, but quickly found himself jailed and charged a few days later with the other men who had been arrested that day.  Far more than Cherifi, Oulahsen was a success story among North African Frenchmen.  Born in Mantes-la-Jolie (Yvelines) 13 June 1974, he and his wife were entrepreneurs involved in a range of businesses types—a restaurant, a couple automotive companies, a phone shop, and a real estate office:

Name Type Address SIREN Owners
SCI Grand Ouest Real Estate 20 Rue Du Docteur Roux, 78200 Mantes La Jolie 481 541 175 Jamal Oulahsen 4/19/2005-2/16/2010, then Salima (Bousseka) Oulahsen since then
Centre Controle Technique De Mantes (C.C.T.M) Automotive 16 Rue Jean Hoet 16-1 78200 Mantes La Jolie 453 975 708 Jamal Oulahsen 6/29/2004-6/29/2006, then by Mohammed Oulahsen until its liquidation on 3/4/2008
Controle Tech Automobile Les Mureaux (CTA Les Mureaux) Automotive AUTOVISION ZAC GRAND OUEST

Rue Des Pleiades 78130 Les Mureaux

481 415 701 Jamal Oulahsen 4/12/2005-2/20/2010, then Karima Oulahsen until its liquidation on 2/24/2011
Le Rendez-vous Gourmand Restaurant Clichy-sous-Bois    
Point Phone Payphone Outlet Clichy-sous-Bois    

 

It’s the last two that are mentioned prominently following the December 2005 roundup as of particular interest to investigators.  Many of the stories characterized the restaurant as being owned by Cherifi, but the relevant documentation doesn’t seem to be available online to demonstrate this.  The most detailed article on Oulahsen and his connection to the Cherifi from Le Figaro flatly states that Oulahsen owned the restaurant and that his wife, likely Salima Bousseka, ran a payphone business in Clichy-sous-Bois.  This business was shown in other articles to be the Point Phone business where a Chronopost sack from the March 2005 heist filled with blank administrative documents from the Imprimerie Nationale was found.  The Cherifi group was likely an “investor” in the restaurant.

But Oulahsen is no unwitting accomplice duped into cooperation with these men.  He was described by the police as a “hardline Islamist,” and he was already on law enforcement radar for his connection to men involved with GICM and the Casablanca attacks.  Oulahsen was part of 30 October 2003 international arrest warrant issued by Interpol at the request of Morroco.  The men were picked up in April 2004, but Oulahsen was one of the number released on bail, paving the way for his involvement with Cherifi’s outfit.

While he would never face trial with respect to Cherifi and his gang, he did go on trial on 4 June 2007 with several other defendants (Mustapha Baouchi, Bachir Ghoumid, Fouad Charouali, Rachid Aït El Hadj, Hassan Boutani, Attila Turk, and Redouane Aberbri) for logistical support with respect to the Casablanca attacks.  Due to his lesser role, he received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of €3000 on 11 July 2007.  He filed for bankruptcy following the case.

Rabah Boukaouma aka Le Kabyle

Le Kabyle is one of my favorite mystery men in the jihadist support networks of Paris.  He’s come up on three separate occasions that I’m aware of and have written about before: with the Cherifi group, in 2013 surveillance of Cherif Kouachi, and as an accomplice in the Sid Ghlam affair.  I presume that Boukaouma was probably one of those 20-something men brought in on 12 December 2005.  As there were supposedly 11 individuals initially indicted, he could be the last man of that group, but I doubt it.  In any event, he certainly didn’t come to trial.  Le Kabyle was an active part of the Cherifi group’s “investment” strategy centered on telephony and internet shops, one of which was a cybercafé in Aubervilliers in which he invested €20,000.  I’m not sure which cybercafé is being referenced, but Boukaouma was an owner of “Phone Contact” shop at 77 Avenue de la République in Aubervilliers from at least 2005 until 2011.  During that time, he assumed sole directorship of A.T.C. (Association Top Carrosserie), a garage at 13 Rue Danielle Casanova in Aubervilliers in 2008, which he held onto until 2015.  This is presumably the site of his encounter with Kouachi in 2013.  In the Ghlam affair, El Kabyle was allegedly responsible for obtaining the weapons that were to be stored in the Renault Mégane that Ghlam’s “director” had told him would be by the sandwich shop L’Atmosphère in Aulnay-sous-Bois.  Ghlam was employed at a small, unnamed crêperie in Yvelines that had so many fiche “S” subjects working for it that investigators began referring to it as “La crêperie conspirative,” and Boukaouma was one of the store’s “regulars.”  He tried to procure the weapons from a worker at the crêperie, Abdelkader Jalal. Jalal’s DNA was discovered in the Mégane, but he claims to have brought only the bulletproof vests to the car. Farid B., another employee at the crêperie and associate of Boukaouma was also involved.

Anouar Majrar (Abou Marouane)

According to Liberation, Cherifi made the acquaintance of Moroccan Anouar Majrar during the latter’s prison stint in the Châteaudun detention center in 2003.  It was here in 2001 that Majrar acquired his radical beliefs which landed him in trouble years later when his story picked up again in 2005.  According to Le Monde, like Cherifi he put together his own band engaged in illicit fundraising activities and was interested in merging his operations with Cherifi’s.  For some reason, Cherifi declined this offer.  Le Monde says that following this, Majrar linked up with M’Hamed Benyamina in July 2005, an important member of the group around Safé Bourada.

How he links to Cherifi emerged when Jean-Louis Bruguière went and interviewed him in Morocco on 7 December 2005.  According to L’Express, he described the structure of Cherifi’s group and its role in recruiting fighters bound for Iraq, although he eventually recanted all his statements.  The DST accused Cherifi of a conspiratorial rendezvous with Majrar in Istanbul in September 2005, but he claimed his purpose for being there a commercial one.

Majrar’s orbit eventually aligned with the GSPC.  Javier Jordán’s The Foiled Attacks in Italy in 2006 in “The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat” by Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares describes him as well-connected and trusted within French GCPC circles by March 2005 when he met future co-conspirator Mohamed Benhadi M’Sahel.  He and M’Sahel made their way to Damascus in June 2005 with the goal of entering Iraq.  While there, Majrar received a call requesting that he come to Algeria for a meeting where GSPC representatives, including Amer Laraaj aka Salim el-Ouahrani, prevailed upon him to join a plot aimed at the Italians.  Laraaj had previously attended a Majrar family picinic back in France in May of that year.  Upon his return to Syria, Majrar convinced M’Sahel to join in.

The plot against targets like Milan’s metro and the basilica of San Petronia in Bologna never materialized as the conspirators in various locations were wrapped up by the authorities.  M’Sahel and eight others were rounded up in Morocco on 24 March 2006.  Milan went after seven from Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian; three were expelled, two arrested, one placed under control, and one caught much later trying to re-enter the country.  Majrar had been taken out of commission at the end of 2005 by the Greeks for attempting to enter the country on a false passport and extradited back to Morocco.  He was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2007.

Safé Bourada

Sometime during his detention between 2000 and 2004 Ouassini Cherifi met Safé Bourada, a 38-year-old Frenchman who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the 1995 Islamist attacks in France.  Following his release, Bourada created a group called Ansar al-Fath which operated along lines similar to Cherifi’s.  French authorities, however, accused it of far more than simple fundraising.  One member, Kaci Ouarab, spent time in Lebanon preparing the way for future operational training of the group.

Another member of the group, M’Hamed Benyamina, was arrested in early September 2005 at the airport in Oran, Algeria. His arrest triggered the dismantlement of the group.  Under interrogation he gave information that the group planned to strike potential targets like Orly airport, the Paris metro and the DST.  He claimed these statements were made under duress and subsequently disavowed them, and his absence during his compatriots’ trial in France cast a shadow over those proceedings.

As no direct contact between Bourada and Cherifi appears to have taken place, it is through Benyamina that a potential avenue of connection would have occurred.  According to Le Monde, Cherifi’s friend Majrar was allegedly in contact with Benyamina from July of 2005.  Other reports claim that Benyamina said there efforts were in part to be funded by the illegal activities of Cherifi and his group.

The other intersection between Cherifi and Bourada is allegedly the mysterious Tunisian interlocutor Abu Mohamed Al Tounsi, who was in direct contact with Al Zarqawi.  Tim Holman’s blog is the only one I know to attempt to identify this individual.

Why Does It Matter?

A man like Cherifi and his little gang from 2005 may seem like irrelevant “small potatoes” at this point, but I think this is a short-sighted view to take.  Although his efforts may appear disjointed and his networks nebulous, Cherifi and his compatriots intimate something more dangerous than is initially evident.  What we have from the networks described above is a loosely-affiliated logistical/facilitation infrastructure which could be brought to bear in support of combat theaters in places like Iraq and Syria, activated from places in North Africa, and tasked with attacking European targets.  Whether or not it arose on its own initiative, it was able to develop liaison capability with North African components of the jihadist fight in the Middle East.  Cherifi seems to have limited his efforts to the material support sphere, but there’s no guarantee that this would have remained the case.

Looking at Cherifi and his associates, it becomes clear that his group and other conspiratorial groups from the time had social bonds among their members.  This can be seen in some of the reporting from the time, but the Sid Ghlam affair drives home the notion that it could be more extensive than publicly revealed.  Ghlam’s boss in “La crêperie conspirative” was Stephane Hadoux, a convicted member of Safé Bourada’s group.  Rabah Boukaouma from Cherifi’s group, a regular customer at Hadoux’s creperie, helped procure the weapons for the attack.  Ghlam was commissioned by Abdenacer Benyoucef, a role player in the GICM networks with whom Oulahsen was involved, who has presumably been killed in Syria in a suicide operation since then.  Men who were bit players in the facilitation networks of the early and mid-2000s combined a decade later to enable another young man to try and perpetrate an attack on French soil on behalf of the Islamic State.

Chart
Members of Early al-Qaeda Networks Converge in the Sid Ghlam Affair

Being aware of and understanding men like Cherifi takes on added weight when one considers that he may be out before long.  He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on 29 January 2011, and if one assumes his sentence begins from the time of his arrest on 12 December 2005 and that he serves the entire term, his latest release date is just over two years away.  Lori Hinnant’s recent article in the Washington Post drives home just how much of a problem he could represent.  Europe faces the prospect of more than 200 terrorism convicts being released dating from the period of the mid-2000s foreign fighter flow to Iraq and Syria.  Fifty-seven of these will be in France alone, and if one considers the numbers of returnees living freely or facing only minor charges the dangers become apparent.  A man like Cherifi expanded his network in notable ways in just under two years in his first stint in prison.  What has he been able to achieve in the nearly fifteen years this time?  What will he be able to facilitate with the broader spectrum of individuals now invested in the fight against the West?

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