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Top al-Qaida terrorist linked to killers, fuelling theory of orchestrated mission

By Kim Sengupta

Links have begun to emerge between the Islamists involved in the two sieges faced by French security forces, pointing towards a planned jihad in the heart of Europe.

Amedy Coulibaly, who along with a female accomplice took five people hostage in a kosher bakery in Paris, was named by the police as the suspect who murdered a policewoman on Thursday. He is connected to Chérif, one of the Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo murders, through Djamel Beghal, a senior al-Qaida member and convicted terrorist.

Intercepts on telephone calls reportedly showed that Coulibaly and Kouachi had recently planned to visit Beghal in Murat in central France where he is under house arrest, but were forced to turn back.

Coulibaly (32) was jailed for five years after being involved in a plot with Beghal to free Smain Ait al Belkacem, a former member of the Algerian Salafist GIA movement.

Just before his arrest, Coulibaly had met Nicolas Sarkozy in a conference at the Elysée Palace with disenfranchised young people. Afterwards, Coulibaly said: "He impressed me. Whether you like him or not, he is the President."

Hayet Boumedienne, Coulibaly's 26-year-old girlfriend who carried out the attack on the bakery alongside him and later evaded capture, had also met Beghal, according to reports in the French media.

Questions are being asked about how the attackers, who had been on the radar of the intelligence services, managed to build up an arsenal of automatic rifles and explosives.

Beghal, described as wielding huge influence over a close-knit group of disaffected young Muslims, was suspected of recruiting the shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the "20th hijacker" in the 9/11 attacks. He had at times taken the nom de guerre of Abu Hamza, the formerly London-based cleric who was extradited to the US and convicted yesterday of 11 charges of instigating acts of terrorism.

Beghal was frequently seen at the cleric's Finsbury Park mosque in north London where he also met Abu Qatada, who was described as Osama bin Laden's emissary in Europe.

He returned to France where he was arrested over alleged involvement in a bomb plot.

In jail he met Chérif Kouachi who had been convicted in 2008 of "belonging to a criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking".

The two men remained in contact after their release and were photographed by a French police team in 2010 playing football with two other convicted terrorists.

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