The Cable

Al Qaeda Offshoot in Yemen Claims Responsibility for Charlie Hebdo Attack

U.S. officials describe al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate as the most dangerous among the group's remaining branches.


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an official branch of al Qaeda based in Yemen, is now claiming responsibility for Wednesday’s attack against a French satirical magazine in Paris that left 12 people dead.

“The leadership of #AQAP directed the operation, and they have chosen their target carefully as a revenge for the honor of Prophet,” a source within the terrorist group, known as AQAP, said in a statement provided to the Intercept, an online publication whose founding editors include Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

The group picked a target in France, it said, “because of its obvious role in the war on Islam and oppressed nations.”

Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which focuses on U.S. counterterrorism efforts, noted the statement has yet to be released through official AQAP channels.

“This may be true, but it is not how they do business usually,” he said. That said, well-connected jihadists are tweeting the alleged statement, which adds to its legitimacy, he added.

According to witnesses, the gunmen, Said and Cherif Kouachi, both killed Friday in a shootout with French law enforcement, claimed to be working on behalf of “al Qaeda in Yemen” after they stormed Charlie Hebdo, but the group did not immediately claim responsibility.

Said, 34, traveled to Yemen in 2011 and may have received training with AQAP, according to American officials. Meanwhile, a senior Yemeni intelligence source told Reuters on Friday that Said met Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent member of al Qaeda and a key recruiter, in Yemen in 2011. Awlaki was killed later that same year by an American Hellfire missile, making him the first U.S. citizen to be targeted and killed in a drone strike.

The AQAP source told the Intercept the group did not immediately claim responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack due to security concerns for those who executed the plot.

The group claims a clue foreshadowing the attack was included in the latest issue of al Qaeda’s propaganda magazine, Inspire. Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, Stéphane Charbonnier, was specifically threatened in a 2013 edition of the magazine.

Cherif, 32, has his own history with foreign terrorist networks that dates back a decade. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Cherif joined a Parisian jihadi outfit known as the 19th Arrondissement Network, which worked to funnel young French Muslim men to Iraq to fight U.S. and coalition forces there. Cherif was arrested before being able to make the trip to Iraq.

It was his arrest in 2010 in connection with the attempted prison escape of Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, an Algerian who carried out terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s, that links him to Amedy Coulibaly, who shot and killed a policewoman in Paris on Thursday and burst into a kosher grocery store in Paris Friday morning, taking at least five hostages. French police killed Coulibaly in a raid that ended the standoff. French police also killed the Kouachi brothers in a raid on their hideout north of Paris on Friday.

U.S. officials have long worried that AQAP, which has attempted several attacks on the U.S. homeland –including the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt — represents the most dangerous threat among al Qaeda’s remaining affiliates.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen
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