In the summer of 2011, three French ex-convicts met in Yemen to talk about unleashing death and terror on the streets of Paris.
The trio was part of a crew of jihadis who radicalized together in the Buttes-Chaumont neighborhood of Paris a decade earlier. All three had been convicted of serious crimes. But they were at large thanks to a problem that gets scant attention in France and elsewhere in Europe: lenient sentencing policies for people convicted of terrorism and other violent crimes.
Peter Cherif, the son of Afro-Caribbean and Tunisian immigrants, was the dominant figure at the meeting. In 2004, U.S. troops had captured him while he was fighting for al Qaeda in Iraq. After his return to France, he served just 18 months in jail before he won release pending trial.
By the time the court imposed a five-year sentence on Cherif, he had fled to Yemen to join the al Qaeda offshoot there. U.S. courts have sent terrorists found guilty of comparable offenses to maximum-security prisons for decades or life.
Intelligence officials say Cherif was visited in Yemen by Salim Benghalem, who was radicalized in prison by another Buttes-Chaumont jihadi who fought in Iraq. Convicted for a murder, Benghalem had served about six years before he was back on the street.