By Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - Twelve years ago, one of the two brothers suspected of the shootings at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was a young man like many others in France, more interested in girls and smoking dope than defending the Prophet Mohammad.
But between 2003, when Cherif Kouachi delivered pizzas and dreamed of being a rap star, and Wednesday, when he and his brother were named chief suspects in the killing of 12 people in Paris, the French national went from punk to most wanted.
Kouachi, 32, is being sought along with his older brother Said, 34, in a manhunt following what President Francois Hollande called a terrorist attack of "exceptional barbarism" against journalists and two police officers.
How Kouachi - described as a "pipsqueak" by his lawyer during a 2005 trial for involvement in a cell sending young French volunteer fighters to Iraq - started down the road to radicalism is a story becoming increasingly familiar in France and elsewhere in the West.
Questions are already being raised over how an ex-convict known to intelligence services for his radical leanings could have been able to carry out Wednesday's massacre.
Born in eastern Paris to Algerian parents who died when the brothers were still children, Kouachi grew up in an orphanage in the western city of Rennes. Armed with a sports teacher diploma, Kouachi returned to Paris and delivered pizzas to get by.
"He was part of a group of young people who were a little lost, confused, not really fanatics in the proper sense of the word," his ex-lawyer Vincent Ollivier, told Liberation daily. "He hadn't really given any great thought to Islam and didn't seem all that determined."
In a 2005 France 3 documentary, which includes footage taken by a Paris community center, Kouachi is seen rapping in English, in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, a baseball hat worn backwards on his head.
Despite a record for selling drugs and minor theft, he is described as someone more interested in pretty girls and music than the Koran. But that was before he met Farid Benyettou.
Only one year older than Kouachi, Benyettou practiced a strict form of Salafism, and acted as mentor to several young men in the neighborhood who had begun to attend a popular mosque in immigrant-heavy northeastern Paris.
With Benyettou at his side, Kouachi began going to prayer classes. He started watching Jihadist videos and grew his beard.
Kouachi testified during his 2008 trial that Benyettou taught him that suicide bombers could die as martyrs. Kouachi said he was greatly affected by abuse of prisoners by U.S. servicemen at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The "Buttes Chaumont" cell led by Benyettou, named for a nearby hilly park, to which Kouachi now belonged, sent about a dozen youths, all less than 25 years old, to Iraq.
While their convictions were fierce, their training was amateur. The group jogged around the park a few times to get in physical shape, and they were once given secret training sessions on how to use Kalashnikov rifles - through sketches.
On Jan. 25, 2005, Kouachi was arrested as he was preparing to fly himself to Syria en route to Iraq in police action to break up the cell which also netted Benyettou. At his trial, Kouachi testified to having had cold feet.
"As the date got closer, more and more I wanted to turn back time. But if I chickened out, I risked being seen as a coward," he told judges then.
He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008, but served only 18 months, at two of France's hardest prisons. The experience changed him for good, recalled lawyer Ollivier: "He wasn't into talking anymore. He wasn't the same."
His body, too, had changed thanks to prison workouts: "A pipsqueak who turned beefy," Ollivier said.
One social worker interviewed in the France 3 documentary recalled that, while in detention awaiting trial, Kouachi began to understand that he had been manipulated by Benyettou.
"He realized he had been taken for a ride and gotten tangled up in something that he himself hadn't even fathomed," he said.
By now it was too late.
After serving his sentence, Kouachi was brought before police again in 2010. He was suspected of being part of a group that tried to bust from prison Smain Ali Belkacem, author of a 1995 attack on the Paris transport system that killed eight people and wounded 120.
But police had little concrete evidence against him other than some radical videos and al Qaeda speeches seized during a search of his home, and an Internet cache that showed Kouachi had searched Jihadist sites online.
Kouachi was made an "assisted witness" in a case against another man - a special French status which implies suspicion of some implication - before he was entirely dropped from it.
This missed opportunity will likely be cited in the days to come as France struggles to understand how much knowledge police had of the suspected perpetrator of the worst attack in decades on French soil.
A court document from that dismissed case, published by Le Point weekly, spells it out.
"Despite his avowed immersion in radical Islam, his demonstrated interest in theories defending the legitimacy of armed Jihad and his relationship with certain actors in the case ... the preliminary investigation does not show the involvement of Cherif Kouachi," reads the court filing.
"The proceedings against the concerned will be dismissed."
(Editing by Mark John and Ralph Boulton)