- AQAP’s attempt to take full credit for the attack on Charlie Hebdo and link the operation to an order by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is a likely bid to reassert the group’s relevance in a time in which the Islamic State’s rise is challenging its global legitimacy.
- On the ground, co-operation between Europe-based jihadists is not constrained by the ideological or military disagreements of the groups that inspire them.
- Attacks against soft targets by the Islamic State or AQAP sympathisers and Western returnees from Iraq and Syria are far more likely than attacks against hardened targets.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed responsibility for the attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January. The group made its claim in a video posted online yesterday (14 January).
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) posted a video online yesterday (14 January) in which it claimed responsibility for the attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January by brothers Chérif and Said Kouachi. Notably, AQAP did not claim that Amedy Coulibaly, the third jihadist who was killed after taking hostages in a kosher supermarket on 8 January, was an attacker it had sponsored. Coulibaly had issued a statement pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, posted by the group’s supporters from Raqqa.
In the AQAP video, senior official Nasser bin al-Ansi said the Charlie Hebdo attack was “vengeance for the Messenger of Allah”, in compliance with the orders of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and following “the will of Sheikh Osama bin Laden”. Al-Ansi stated the AQAP leadership “chose the target, laid the plan and financed the operation”. He also said that co-ordination with the leader of the operation was made through Anwar Al-Awlaki, a US-born jihadist preacher who was chief of external operations before his death in a US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strike in Yemen in September 2011. Al-Ansi pointed out that AQAP had explicitly threatened Charlie Hebdo and its editor Stephane Charbonnier previously. In the March 2013 issue of AQAP’s English-language Inspire magazine, a ‘hit-list’ included Charbonnier in a list of people wanted “Dead or Alive For Crimes Against Islam.” Charbonnier was among the 12 people killed by the Kouachi brothers on 7 January.
The AQAP statement is consistent with what Chérif Kouachi said in an interview to French television channel BFM-TV while he was hiding in a print factory in Dammartin-en-Goële after the attack in Paris. Chérif claimed that he was tasked with carrying out the attack by AQAP and that Awlaki had financed his operation. US intelligence officials also reported on 9 January that one or both of the brothers had received training in Yemen between 2011 and 2013 and that AQAP provided them with USD20,000 to finance a future operation.
The statement’s inconsistency
AQAP’s attempt to take full credit for the attack and link the operation to a Zawahiri order is a likely bid to reassert Al-Qaeda’s relevance in a time in which the Islamic State’s rise is challenging its global legitimacy. Most likely, AQAP inspired the Kouachi brothers to carry out such an operation against the “far enemy”, giving them some training and advice, including potentially a list of acceptable targets; but ultimately probably left them free to finalise the target selection for themselves and carry out the attack.
Similarly, the Islamic State’s effort to claim some credit for the French attacks likely follows the same dynamic. Crucially, Coulibaly acquired the weapons used by the Charlie Hebdo attackers. This reflects the fact that, on the ground, co-operation between Europe-based jihadists is not constrained by the ideological or military disagreements of the groups that inspire them. In this case, this was partly due to the pre-existing personal relationships between the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly, their radicalisation by the same preacher, and their part in a broad network of Salafist jihadists, well before the Islamic State/Al-Qaeda conflict emerged.
Al-Qaeda’s rivalry with the Islamic State
The fact that AQAP explicitly dissociated itself from Coulibaly’s attack is likely its own attempt at showing that it and Al-Qaeda can conduct spectacular attacks in Europe independently of the Islamic State, which has been gaining far more media attention and adulation from young jihadists. As for Coulibaly, formerly a petty criminal, he had become a radical well before the rise of the Islamic State, and had been imprisoned for stockpiling 240 rounds of 7.62mm rifle in his flat in 2010. The fact that his partner Hayat Boumeddiene reportedly moved to Syria before he conducted the attack suggests that he had some inspiration from individuals there, but there is no evidence of organisational support. Moreover, given his role in terms of supplying weapons, the attack could not have been conducted without him.
The collaboration between the AQAP-affiliated Kouachi brothers and the Islamic State-affiliated Coulibaly indicates that organisational affiliation for Western jihadists does not have the same relevance and meaning as it does for Arab jihadists across the Middle East and North Africa, primarily because it has no practical impact in Europe. This seems supported by a video released by an Islamic State official media outfit on 14 January, in which French members of the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, praised the Paris attacks and depicted all the three jihadists as their “brothers”.
Both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s discourse is rooted in the same ideological sources and in an almost identical anti-Western narrative. Therefore, their organisational differences in Syria, which are leading to competition for legitimacy and sometimes military conflict, have no practical value for Europe-based jihadists. Moreover, the split between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State split is unlikely to have an impact on the target pattern of future jihadist plots in the West, with affiliates of both groups likely to select targets recommended by either, based on their own capability rather than on ideological or organisational preferences. European intelligence services have claimed that up to 5,000 European passport holders have travelled to fight in Syria. There are also a significant number of individuals who have tried to travel but have been stopped, and who may well seek to die as ‘martyrs’ in Europe.
The key determinant of the risk these individuals pose will depend on their ability to acquire weapons and ingredients for making explosives, enabled by connections with local criminal networks and facilitated by the combat experience of Western returnees from Iraq and Syria. This ability is likely to increase, as in the case of Coulibaly.
The Paris attacks represent a shift from the type of incident seen in the simultaneous attacks on the Madrid commuter rail system in 2004, in which every step of the operation was planned by Al-Qaeda. The latest incident shows a type of attack in which perpetrators are given some minimal direction and resources, and left to their own devices. This makes attacks against soft targets – such as media, public transport networks, Jewish assets or cultural symbols – far more likely than attacks against hardened targets. A significant increase in risk will occur if Islamic State and Al-Qaeda sympathisers begin competing with each other in escalating such attacks to demonstrate which organisation is the most effective and therefore the most deserving of loyalty.