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‘Charlie Hebdo’ Investigation Turns Toward al Qaeda, Syria Connections

Hayat Boumeddiene is reported to have crossed into Syria on the heels of the release of a video message from her former lover and accused Charlie Hebdo gunman, Amedy Coulibaly.

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A day after 40 world leaders and more than 1 million people marched in Paris in a show of solidarity for those killed at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the international scope of the plot is beginning to come into fuller focus, with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen claiming responsibility for the attack and one of the French gunmen linking himself with the Islamic State.

In a video posted over the weekend, Amedy Coulibaly, the 32-year-old man who killed four people at a kosher grocery store in Paris Friday, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The video shows him speaking to the camera in front of an Islamic State flag and denouncing the U.S.-led aerial campaign against the group, which controls broad swaths of Iraq and Syria. France is part of the coalition of Western and regional powers battling the militants.

“You cannot attack us and expect nothing back in return,” Coulibaly says in the video, which includes references to the attacks he carried out and appears to have been completed by other militants after Coulibaly’s death in a shootout with French police. “As if you don’t understand why this is happening, for a few dead. This is for you and your coalition, with you at its head.”

On Sunday, French police raided an apartment that Coulibaly had rented from Jan. 4 to 11 and discovered a stash of weapons, cash, and Islamic State flags.

The full, untranslated version of Coulibaly’s video can be viewed here:

The video below includes translated excerpts.

Coulibaly’s professed allegiance toward the Islamic State raises questions about whether the Hebdo shooters, Cherif and Said Kouachi, were being honest when they said that they were sent on their mission by al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The head of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, and the group is widely considered al Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot.

But al Qaeda and the Islamic State are rivals in the world of Islamist terrorism and have publicly split with one another. As evidence of the deep division between them, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, has at times fought against the Islamic State, though the two have reportedly grown closer since the start of the American air war there. If they cooperated on the Paris attack, it would be the first time the two groups have carried out an operation abroad together.

Over the weekend, French and Turkish security officials said that Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, Coulibaly’s partner, had fled France and entered Syria via Turkey. Turkish officials told the BBC that she arrived in Turkey on Jan. 2, having flown from Madrid to Istanbul with a French citizen, Mehdi Sabry Belhoucine. Closed-circuit video recorded Boumeddiene at a Turkish airport that day.

Turkish security allowed Belhoucine and Boumeddiene to enter the country but placed them under surveillance. On Jan. 8, the day Coulibaly is suspected to have killed a French policewoman, the two entered Syria across the Turkish border.

On Monday, the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online jihadi activity, reported that supporters of the Islamic State are now claiming that Boumeddiene has reached territory controlled by the militant group. French authorities, meanwhile, said that as many as six members of the terror cell that carried out the Paris attacks may still be at large. According to the Associated Press, one was spotted driving a Mini Cooper registered to Boumeddiene.

According to a Yemeni security official quoted by the Toronto Star, Said Kouachi visited that country in 2011 and trained with al Qaeda. During that time he worked with the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in September of that year. Kouachi left the country shortly after his death.

“Kouachi was part of the terrorist cell that Awlaki was responsible for — the international operations outside of Yemen for AQAP,” the official told the Star. According to the paper, during his time in Yemen Said Kouachi also attended Al Iman University, which was founded by Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a spiritual leader who has been designated as a terrorist by U.S. authorities.

Fearing additional attacks, French authorities on Monday deployed 10,000 troops to guard Jewish schools and other targets deemed sensitive.

French authorities have said they worry the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the hostage drama at the kosher grocery store may spark additional violence. On Sunday, the office of a German newspaper that republished a set of Charlie Hebdo cartoons was firebombed. There have also been widespread reports of attacks on French Muslims.

Though the attackers on the magazine shouted afterwards that they had “killed Charlie Hebdo,” the magazine will go forward with its normal publishing schedule, and on Monday it was sent to printers, slated for a 1 million issue run, the largest in its history. The magazine’s lawyer has said that issue will “obviously” include cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad.

Late Monday, the issue’s cover began circulating online:

More information has also emerged on how Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers became radicalized and came into contact with one another. According to the Guardian, Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi were jailed at the same prison south of Paris between 2005 and 2006 and fell under the influence of the Algerian jihadi Djamel Beghal, who had been jailed after plotting to blow up the American Embassy in Paris. Cherif Kouachi had been sent to the jail while on trial for his involvement in the so-called 19th Arrondissement Network, which funneled French fighters to fight in the Iraqi insurgent movement.

Cherif Kouachi and Coulibaly were later suspected of trying to spring another imprisoned Algerian militant, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, from jail in 2010. Coulibaly was convicted in that plot but Kouachi was released for lack of evidence. Coulibaly was released in the spring 2014.

According to a psychiatric report conducted on Coulibaly and obtained by the newspaper Libération, Coulibaly was described as somebody with an “immature and psychopathic personality” but the assessment found “no pathology.” The report’s author found he had “poor powers of introspection” and a wish to be “all-powerful.”

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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