Al Qaeda: Zawahiri Ordered ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attack

French authorities must now confront the terrifying prospect that two of its citizens may have been in regular contact with the terrorist group's leaders.

Paris RS
Paris RS

his story has been updated.

his story has been updated.

Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre and claimed that the attack was ordered by the terrorist network’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but counterterrorism experts said that it is too soon to know whether al Qaeda inspired and provided training for the attack or actually had direct control over last week’s bloody assault in downtown Paris.

Whatever its actual role in the attack, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received a publicity boost in its competition against the Islamic State. The rival terrorist organizations have been competing for funding and recruits, and a new video released Wednesday, Jan. 14, keeps AQAP’s role in the attack front and center.

“We assess the AQAP video claiming responsibility for last week’s attack against Charlie Hebdo is authentic,” a spokesman for the office of the Director of National Intelligence told FP.

In the new video, a senior AQAP leader, Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi, claims that the group picked the target, laid the plan, and financed the attack in Paris. Ansi described it as “the blessed Battle of Paris” and said it was carried out with Zawahiri’s guidance.

Ansi said the shooting, which killed 12 last Wednesday, Jan. 7, came in revenge for Charlie Hebdo‘s repeated publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. He noted that one of those killed in the attack, Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, had been included in a “wanted list” in AQAP’s propaganda magazine, Inspire.

Perhaps coincidentally, the video came out the same day as the newest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which again has Mohammed on its cover. The 3 million copies of the issue — the most the magazine has ever printed — sold out within hours.

Ansi described the shooters — French brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi — as “heroes of Islam.” But he said AQAP was not responsible for the deadly shooting that occurred two days later at a kosher grocery store in Paris, where four hostages were killed.

Amedy Coulibaly, who launched the attack on the kosher grocery, pledged loyalty to the Islamic State in a video released after his death. In the new AQAP video, Ansi said it was a blessing that Coulibaly’s “operation” coincided with the Kouachis’.

It was American-born radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, who planned the attack with the brothers, Ansi said. Nidal Hasan, a former U.S. Army psychiatrist who shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, is also believed to have been inspired by Awlaki and is known to have emailed with him.

Awlaki “threatens the West both in his life and after his martyrdom,” Ansi said in the video.

The reference to Awlaki’s direct role raises questions about the timing of the attack.

“They are claiming that the attack was ordered by Awlaki before he was killed, so that’s a four-year delay that doesn’t quite make sense,” said Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001. “I think this is more aspirational in many ways, and terrorists groups do like taking credit for events that they may or may not have actually been responsible for.”

While the video doesn’t prove that AQAP orchestrated the Charlie Hebdo attack, it’s now clear the group played a large role in the brothers’ lives, a fact that has serious implications for Western intelligence agencies that missed or downplayed clues linking the shooters to the militant network.

Officials and experts had been doubtful that AQAP was directly involved — partly because it would have been extraordinarily difficult for the affiliate to have maintained the secrecy necessary for the militants in Paris to communicate with the group’s leadership in Yemen without being caught by Western surveillance. If the attack was centrally planned and financed, it implies that AQAP managed to get around security and surveillance safeguards.

“It’s self-evident from events that something was missed,” said Robert McFadden, a terrorism expert and senior vice president of the Soufan Group, a New York-based security intelligence firm. “However, it must be taken into account the range of priorities the French are dealing with and how quickly capacity is stretched with a large known and suspected bad-actors list.”

McFadden said it’s not surprising there haven’t been many official statements yet from Paris.

“They are still running events backward and reviewing what happened, while at the time running full-speed ahead forward to locate and disrupt plots,” he said. “But that is where we’ll find out where and what was missed and the decision process leading up to it.”

A direct link to AQAP was first suspected as incriminating details emerged about the Kouachi brothers, both of whom have a long record of associating with known terrorist groups.

Said Kouachi, 34, spent more than a year in Yemen on a student visa starting in 2009, during which time he studied at the Sana’a Institute for the Arabic Language with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian member of AQAP who later that year tried to detonate a bomb on a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, according to the Wall Street Journal. Said Kouachi is believed to have traveled to Yemen again, this time to train with AQAP, during a trip he took to Oman in 2011. That trip prompted French intelligence to place him under surveillance upon his return to France, but that monitoring stopped this summer when authorities decided that he no longer posed any real danger.

Younger brother Chérif, who claims to have also traveled to Yemen, told French channel BFMTV in an interview before he was killed by police Friday that he was sent by al Qaeda in Yemen. He said Awlaki financed him.

Despite the connections, U.S. officials and experts initially doubted that AQAP orchestrated the attack, even if the group helped inspire the strike and train those who ultimately carried it out.

“Is it possible in theory? Yes,” said a senior U.S. defense official Tuesday, before the AQAP video was released. “Is it also unlikely? Yes.”

Counterterrorism expert Clint Watts, a former U.S. Army officer and FBI agent, said it’s possible the Kouachi brothers made AQAP aware of their plan. But he doubts that AQAP “specifically reached out and told these two guys, ‘Go do this attack.'”

Watts said a more likely scenario would be that the two Kouachi brothers saw the targeting guidance from AQAP’s propaganda magazine, Inspire, and then concluded they could carry out the attack.

“We won’t know how involved AQAP was until we see the email, the telephone traffic, and we get our hands on any intermediaries that might have been involved,” said Christopher Swift, an expert on national security law who’s spent time in Yemen.

Whether or not AQAP had a hand in the Charlie Hebdo attack, experts say it will benefit from the attention of being associated with it — especially as the al Qaeda brand has been increasingly upstaged by the Islamic State, whose conquests of large stretches of Iraq and Syria and brutal tactics have gained it worldwide notoriety.

“At a time when the Islamic State is dominating the headlines, al Qaeda needs some hook that it can use to catapult itself back into the news,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “And in that sense the attacks have clearly done that.”

Watts agreed. “This is the first thing al Qaeda has been able to hang its hat on in a while,” he said.

AQAP has attempted at least three attacks on the U.S. homeland, but none of them has been successful. The most famous was the failed attack against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, when Abdulmutallab tried to set off explosives sewn into his underwear.

While unsuccessful, that attack highlighted the bomb-making prowess of Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi national and AQAP leader whose expertise in nonmetallic explosives has spooked Western intelligence officials who fear skills may be shared with other terrorist groups.

AQAP has successfully employed suicide bombers in Yemen, including an attack that killed at least 37 people outside a police academy in Sanaa on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack. But so far, its plans for more spectacular explosions against Western targets have failed.

“Their attempts to target hard targets — like commercial aviation — have been frustrated, which may explain why now, especially as the competition with ISIS has sharpened for preeminence over the jihadi movement, it’s entirely conceivable that they encouraged an attack against a much softer target,” Hoffman said.

The Islamic State, along with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, also praised the attacks in Paris.

The senior U.S. defense official said many terrorist organizations seek to be associated with the attacks in Paris, in part so they can secure more funding from sympathetic donors in Persian Gulf states.

The Islamic State was quickly back in the headlines for hacking U.S. Central Command’s YouTube and Twitter accounts on Monday, with embarrassing but relatively harmless results for the U.S. military.

Its brutality was also on display in a video released Tuesday of a child soldier, no more than 10 years old, appearing to execute two men accused of being Russian spies in Syria. Even al Qaeda’s leadership says such tactics go too far. But such tactics have garnered the Islamic State thousands of new recruits.

The Islamic State began as an al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. After his death, the group went through several name changes. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s new leader, announced that he was extending the Islamic State of Iraq into Syria, and thereby directly challenging the authority of al Qaeda’s local franchise there, al-Nusra Front, tensions with al Qaeda deepened. Finally, almost a year ago, al Qaeda’s general command released a statement saying it had no relationship with the Islamic State and was not responsible for its actions.

While there are no official figures for recruits or financing, in the competition for resources the Islamic State is now perceived as the dominant player.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Sunday that he is worried that the Islamic State’s success has pushed other terrorist groups to rebrand themselves “into a more radical ideology.”

But AQAP has long encouraged attacks against soft targets, and this has been done with the buy-in of al Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan, Hoffman said, noting that AQAP’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was a secretary of Osama bin Laden, is directly plugged into al Qaeda’s inner circle, and is viewed as acting in its stead.

“Going back at least a decade, al Qaeda has understood that in order to ensure its survival it’s going to have to devolve more authority, not only to the franchises and its local affiliates and allies, but also to a much more homegrown dimension,” Hoffman said.

The Islamic State also encourages freelancers to act on its behalf.

The Kouachi brothers’ self-identified accomplice, Coulibaly, who shot and killed a policewoman the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack and then killed four more people at the kosher grocery store on Friday, declared his allegiance to the Islamic State in the video released after his death.

While the dueling allegiances of the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly have baffled counterterrorism experts, they also speak to how little the rivalry between al Qaeda and Islamic State leaders means to the men the groups are trying to recruit.

“A lot of this isn’t about doctrine and theory, but empowering young men to go off and fight a world that they and their peers find objectionable,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not about dotting the i‘s or crossing the t‘s in theory, or deeply indoctrinating people in theology. It’s about fighting.”

In the short term, the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as the success of attacks like the ones last week, will likely lead to an uptick in violence, Hoffman said. “The coin of the realm in terrorism is not sitting on your hands; it’s being action-oriented and carrying out attacks.”

Sean Naylor contributed to this report.

Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/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. Twitter: @K8brannen

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