An al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen claimed responsibility late Friday for the deadly attack on a satirical newspaper in France this week, not long after French police killed the suspects to end a three-day manhunt.
A statement provided to the Associated Press from the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said “the leadership of AQAP directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully.” The statement said the attack, which killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, was intended as “revenge for the honor” of the Prophet Muhammad, the depiction of whom is forbidden by Islamic tradition. The magazine had repeatedly mocked him—and other religions—in cartoons.
The claim, which the unnamed spokesman said was delayed two days after Wednesday’s attack for “security reasons,” did not come as a shock. One of the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attack shouted, “You can tell the media it was al-Qaeda in Yemen” during the assault, according to a witness. And the French news channel BFM Television reported that two of the suspected attackers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, made the same claim in a phone call from the printing plant where they held a hostage and were later killed in a police assault Friday. Earlier reports indicated Said Kouachi visited AQAP for several months in 2011 and 2012. AQAP was among the extremist groups that had explicitly threatened the French magazine for publishing photos holding Islam up to ridicule.
It was not the kind of attack AQAP is known for. The group, founded in 2009, is notorious for stealthier, more diabolical efforts against the West. The underwear bomb worn by the Nigerian passenger on a Northwest Airlines jet in 2008 was an AQAP effort. So were the explosives secreted inside printers cartridges shipped by air cargo to the United States a year later. While other al Qaeda franchises have grown preoccupied with local affairs or sectarian battles, AQAP has remained focused on what Osama bin Laden referred to as “the far enemy,” meaning the West. As the Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstrop put it last year, “They almost have an autistic obsession with striking civilization.”
Yet as a military organization, AQAP does what pretty much every group does as it assembles under the black flag of jihad—it trains young men to handle automatic rifles. If, as multiple reports say, Said Kouachi was trained in light weapons and perhaps explosives, that would explain the disciplined movements and comfort with weapons evident in the movements of the black-clad figures captured on video images from the center of Paris. More broadly, the apparent link between AQAP and the Paris attack points up the growing danger posed to Western countries by extremist groups holding territory anywhere around the world, as so-called safe havens become destinations for disaffected young Muslims looking to put themselves to use.
Over the last three years, Syria, not Yemen, has become the primary destination for jihadis as the civil war there has spawned a constellation of fundamentalist militias. Today the largest, Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), operates multiple training camps in the vast tracts of land the group holds in western Syria and eastern Iraq. “I was mainly with Syrians, but there were also Saudis, Tunisians, a handful of Brits and French,” a British-born former recruit known as Abu Dujana told Brookings Institution researcher Charles Lister a year ago. The foreign volunteers arrive in numbers that have increased since the leader of ISIS declared a Caliphate, or governing body for all the world’s Muslims, on the land it holds. The foreigners also die prodigiously. In 2014, foreign fighters accounted for nearly 17,000 of the deaths in Syria, more than half of the fatalities suffered by Islamist rebel groups there, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the unofficial scorekeeper. Only civilians died in greater numbers.
Another jihadi force operating freely in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, is directly linked to al-Qaeda, and is plotting to hit targets in the West, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency MI-5 warned on Thursday. Al-Nusra hosted the Khorasan group of al-Qaeda operatives that U.S. warplanes targeted in the first wave of airstrikes on ISIS inside Syria last year; U.S. officials feared the group was nearing development on a bomb that would escape detection by airport screening. But unlike ISIS, al-Nusra maintains a nationalist as well as religious posture, and a military effectiveness that has made it popular with other less extremist fighters. When the United States designated al-Nusra a terrorist orgaanization in 2012, other rebel groups chanted, “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”
In Yemen, meanwhile, events have conspired to distract AQAP from its focus on “the far enemy.” In September the capital city of Sana’a fell to a Shia tribe backed by Iran, the Houthis, who effectively took over Yemen’s government. By then AQAP had declared an “Islamic emirate” in one of Yemen’s more remote provinces, Hadramout. It’s now at war with both the Houthis and Yemen’s military.
In fact, on the very day two men killed a dozen French civilians in downtown Paris, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula detonated a car bomb in Sana’a. The blast killed 31 police cadets, but brought the organization the merest fraction of the attention that came with reports that one of the Paris attackers had spent time with the group three years ago.
-Additional reporting by Vivienne Walt / Paris.