Charlie Hebdo
Charlie HebdoReuters

French authorities on Sunday handed preliminary terrorism charges to a fugitive extremist who is suspected of fighting US forces in Iraq and helping to organize the 2015 shooting attack at the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were murdered, reports The Associated Press.

Peter Cherif, who recently was arrested in the former French colony of Djibouti and expelled to France, was immediately taken into custody and charged upon his arrival Sunday at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

Cherif is accused of criminal association with a terrorist enterprise. France's defense minister says he played an "important role in organizing" the Charlie Hebdo attack, though his specific actions were unclear.

He embodies a generation of French Muslim youths who travelled to war zones from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen and Syria. Cherif travelled to Iraq in the early 2000s and was arrested in Fallujah in 2004 and held for 19 months by US troops, according to AP.

Cherif, also known as Abu Hamza, later travelled to Yemen, where he was believed to have joined Al-Qaeda jihadists there.

Until he was arrested in Djibouti last week, Cherif had been on the run from French authorities since 2011, when he disappeared just before a Paris court sentenced him to five years in prison on terrorism charges for fighting as an insurgent in Iraq.

He was a close friend of brothers Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi, who were behind the attack at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris in January 2015.

The Kouachi brothers were shot dead by police two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in front of a printing factory in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, outside Paris.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was the first in a series of terrorist attacks in France in January of 2015. Amedy Coulibaly, an associate of the Kouachi brothers, killed a policewoman outside Paris and four people during a hostage-taking at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket. He too was killed in shootouts with police.

Since those attacks, France has been hit by a number of attacks claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS), the biggest one being the attack in November of 2015 in which 129 people were murdered.

The country has been under a heightened alert in recent years in the wake of the attacks.