Said Kouachi, one of two brothers suspected of carrying out this week's deadly shooting at a French satirical weekly fought alongside Al-Qaeda during a 2011 stay in Yemen and was later deported from the country, a high-ranking Yemeni intelligence official told Al Jazeera.
While in Yemen, Kouachi met with Al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, according to a senior Yemeni intelligence source who spoke to Reuters.
U.S. born and Web-savvy, Awlaki was seen as an influential international recruiter to the Al-Qaeda movement and was a prominent figure in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's most active affiliate. He was killed in September 2011 in a drone strike widely attributed to the CIA.
U.S. and European sources close to the investigation said on Thursday that Kouachi was in Yemen for several months training with AQAP.
AQAP emerged as one of Al-Qaeda's most aggressive international affiliates when it claimed responsibility for an attempt by a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to take down a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, with a bomb concealed in his underwear. AQAP said it was also behind a foiled plot to send two airfreight packages containing bombs to the United States in October 2010.
The Yemeni source said Kouachi, 34, was among a number of foreigners who entered the country for religious studies.
"We do not have confirmed information that he was trained by Al-Qaeda, but what was confirmed was that he has met with Awlaki in Shabwa," the source said, noting that he could have been trained in one of the large parts of Yemen not under the control of the authorities back in 2011.
Over the past few years, Al-Qaeda fighters and Yemeni security forces have repeatedly clashed in the southern province of Shabwa. It was under Al-Qaeda's control in 2011 when mass protests forced long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
The Western intelligence sources said that after Kouachi returned to France from Yemen, both brothers appeared to have refrained from any activities that might have drawn the attention of French law enforcement or spy agencies.
They also said that in the months leading up to Wednesday's attack, the men were not treated as priority targets by French counterterrorism agencies, although Germany said later they were on a European watch list.
The watch list containing their names was put together by countries in the European Union's passport-free travel zone known as Schengen and is used by border guards, police and other officials, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.
"They were down for covert surveillance," de Maiziere was quoted as saying in an excerpt from an interview due to be aired on German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday.
U.S. government sources said Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi were listed in two U.S. security databases: a highly-classified database, containing information on 1.2 million possible counterterrorism suspects, called TIDE, and the much smaller no-fly list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, an interagency unit.
Al Jazeera and Reuters