By Caroline Alexander for Bloomberg -The top leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen said his group planned and orchestrated the deadly attack on the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a claim initially made by at least one of the gunmen later shot dead by police.
In a video message posted on social media today, Nasr bin Ali Alanesi said the Jan. 7 assault was in response to the cartoons the magazine published depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
“Congratulations to you, O Ummah of Islam, for this vengeance,” he said, referring to the worldwide Muslim community. “This isFrance that has taken part in all of America’s crimes. This is France that has committed crimes in Mali and the Maghreb. This is France that is supporting the extermination of Muslims in central Africa.”
The rampage at the magazine by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi left 12 people dead, among them some of France’s most celebrated satirists and a Muslim policeman. “We clarify to the Ummah that the one who chose the target, laid the plan, financed the operation, and appointed its emir, is the leadership of the organization,” Alanesi said.
While his comments assert direct al-Qaeda influence over the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, two other attacks last week by an extremist known to the Kouachis who pledged allegiance to rival Islamic State may show the men operated with a large degree of independence from the militant groups, said Sajjan Gohel of the London-based Asia Pacific-Foundation research group.
“It’s almost as if they made the decision to make the plot synchronized rather than get permission from the groups’ leaders abroad,” said Gohel, who’s also a teacher of political Islam at London School of Economics. “It’s a very unusual plot because it has many different dynamics to it,” he said. “It’s a new style of terrorism we are potentially witnessing now.”
In today’s video, Alanesi said the Charlie Hebdo operation “coincided” with the attacks by Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four Jews in a kosher food store in the following two days. Coulibaly, in a video message posted after his death, said he acted on behalf of Islamic State, the militant group that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where it is often fighting against al-Qaeda affiliates.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most active of the network’s subsidiaries. It has grown in prominence since militants belonging to the jihadi network fled a crackdown beginning in 2004 in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
From the relative safety of Yemen, large parts of which are outside state control, the group has been at the center of al-Qaeda’s efforts to develop new bomb-making techniques. The attacks in Paris may mark a shift to plots that are easier to carry out.
The three Paris gunmen were killed by police on Jan. 9. Millions of people in France and across the world have rallied in marches to show support for the victims and defend freedom of expression.
The men all knew each other and Said Kouachi’s wife exchanged 500 phone calls in 2014 with Amedy Coulibaly’s girlfriend, Hayat Boumeddiene, according to French officials.
Police said the weapons used in the attack came from abroad, and authorities in several countries are searching for possible accomplices and the sources of financing.
The Kouachi brothers’ links to Yemen date back years. Said Kouachi first visited the country in 2009 and stayed until mid-2010 before leaving briefly and returning at the end of that year. He remained in Yemen for most of 2011, receiving weapons training from al-Qaeda and returned for the last time in 2012, Gohel said.
In a phone interview with BFM TV before the police raid in which he died, Cherif Kouachi said he and his brother were carrying out the attack on behalf of deceased ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, whom he claimed to have met in Yemen.
Before being killed by police, Coulibaly told the same network he belonged to Islamic State and his attacks had been “synchronized” with the Kouachis’ Charlie Hebdo attack. In the video released after his death, he declared his allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have an ambiguous relationship, Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, said by phone.
“Enemies at the macro level, their supporters have cooperated on the micro level on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq,” he said. The Paris assailants likely drew “on personal networks and affiliations which transcend affiliation to a specific organization,” he said.