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PARIS — The French investigation into last week's Paris shootings is exploring the possible role of Djamel Beghal, an Islamist suspected of first bringing the gunmen together and putting them on the path from impressionable youths to cold-blooded killers.
While the 49-year-old Algerian has denied through his lawyer any involvement in the attacks, judicial and prison sources have described how two of the three gunmen nonetheless fell under his spell during a joint 2005 stretch in jail and then pursued contacts with him after leaving prison.
"Beghal is the crux of the case," said a source close to the inquiry, which on Tuesday ordered searches in the cell in the high-security prison in the western city of Rennes where he is now serving time for an unrelated conviction.
"He is a sorcerer, a seducer," Louis Caprioli, deputy head of France's DST anti-terrorist intelligence unit from 1998 to 2004, told Reuters on Wednesday. "He has a gift for being able to convince on the rightness of his cause. Anyone who came into contact with him could not have helped but become more radicalized."
Convicted for his role in a group behind a failed 1999-2001 plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Beghal was sent to the sprawling Fleury jail outside the French capital where Cherif Kouachi and Coulibaly would also end up serving time.
The fact that all three of the killers and their links with Beghal were known to authorities for years has not gone unnoticed. The government has acknowledged "shortfalls" in intelligence and is putting prison procedures under review.
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