Turkish authorities believe that Hayat Boumeddiene, the widow of the guman behind the attack at a Jewish grocery store in eastern Paris on Friday, travelled through Turkey days before the attack and may have crossed into Syria, complicating a frenetic search to find the woman.
A woman by the same name who resembled a widely distributed photo of Boumeddiene flew to Istanbul on Jan. 2, Turkish officials told French media outlets on Saturday. Boumeddiene, Turkish officials believe, stayed in Istanbul for two nights before traveling to Sanliurfa near the border with Syria and "disappearing."
'Cry for freedom'
French officials on Saturday vowed to combat terrorism with "a cry for freedom" at a massive unity rally planned for Sunday after Paris endured a three-day spree of violence in which 17 people and three gunmen were killed, including Wednesday’s attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and Friday’s assault at a kosher grocery.
Sunday’s rally is also expected to present a huge security challenge for a nation on alert for more violence. On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across France. In Nice, an estimated 23,000 protestors marched silently, while in Pau, a southwestern city with 80,000 inhabitants, roughly 30,000 people flooded the streets. And in nearby Toulouse, 80,000 demonstrators rallied, French media reported.
The demonstrations come amid the ongoing efforts to locate Boumeddiene, 26, who in 2009 married Amedy Coulibaly in a religious ceremony. Police killed Coulibaly after he assaulted the Jewish grocery store on Friday, but not before the suspect killed four hostages.
Officials believe Coulibaly was also responsible for the killing of a Paris policewoman on Thursday, and Boumeddiene was initially believed to have been an accomplice in that attack.
Boumeddiene has never been convicted of a crime, officials said. But judicial records say she was very close to radicals known to French internal security services, and once posed for a photo holding a crossbow.
Records show that she had also been interrogated by French officials about her reaction to terrorist acts committed by Al-Qaeda.
"I don't have any opinion," she answered, according to the records, but immediately added that innocent people were being killed by the United States and needed to be defended, adding that information provided by the media was suspect.
Links to Kouachi brothers
On Friday, two brothers — Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34 — suspected of killing 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper died in a shootout with police near Charles de Gaulle airport outside the French capital. France has been on high alert since the country's worst terror attack in decades.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), widely regarded as the most active and dangerous branch of the organization, on Friday claimed responsibility for the attack "as revenge for the honor" of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo often raised ire among Muslims for its offensive depictions of the prophet.
Francois Molins, the Paris public prosecutor, said that the links between Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers became clear to authorities after they discovered Boumeddiene and the female companion of one of the Kouachis had exchanged about 500 phone calls.
Coulibaly on Friday burst into the kosher grocery just a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath began, declaring "You know who I am," a French official said. The attack came before sundown when the store would have been crowded with shoppers. A police official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Coulibaly had threatened to kill his hostages if police launched an assault on the brothers.
French President Francois Hollande, in a televised speech Friday night, confirmed that four hostages at the grocery had been killed, as he lauded the police response to the assaults and called for unity to help neutralize further attacks.
"We should be able to respond to attacks by force and by our solidarity," said Hollande. "Unity is our best weapon against terrorism and anti-Semitism."
While few facts about Coulibaly and Boumeddiene are known, the Kouachi brothers — both Frenchmen — were recognized among intelligence agencies. Cherif Kouachi, the youngest, was convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 for ties to a network sending jihadists to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.
A Yemeni security official said his 34-year-old brother, Said Kouachi, is suspected of having fought in 2011 for Al-Qaeda in Yemen, where he also allegedly met with high-level AQAP member Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
Al Jazeera and wire services