How Credible is Al Qaeda’s Claim It Planned the Charlie Hebdo Attack?
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters guard a checkpoint on the way to Azzan in Yemen.
Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen released a video on Wednesday claiming responsibility for the deadly attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week that left 12 people, including several journalists, dead.
In an 11-minute video, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a senior official of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said the group “chose the target, laid the plan and financed the operation” carried out by two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, who were killed two days later by French security forces.
The attacks were ordered by Al Qaeda central’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, in response to the French satirical magazine’s publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, according to a statement sent to reporters by the group Wednesday.
FRONTLINE asked three experts to weigh in on the credibility of the statement, AQAP’s relevance and its unarticulated fight for dominance with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Will McCants is a fellow at Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
Aaron Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute.
Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and previously worked as a journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.
Why the late claim? And how credible is it?
McCants: It’s hard to know why it’s so late. I would note they came out fairly quickly with the audio statement praising the attacks. I don’t know what sort of internal deliberations went on as to when to claim responsibility or not — if they had to run it by someone higher up on the food chain in Pakistan or not.
It’s hard to know if it’s legitimate, because they claimed at least one plot that they claim to have undertaken in the past that there was no evidence that they’d actually done it. So people are right to view it with a little bit of skepticism.
Given that the attackers themselves said they were doing it on behalf of AQAP, and now there’s this very detailed statement, I’m inclined to believe they were behind it. Especially since we have a lot of security services saying they were behind it.
Zelin: I don’t necessarily think it’s late per se. It’s only been a couple of days. I find it credible. We know that the brothers were in Yemen.
My biggest question is what they were doing the last three or four years between being in Yemen and the attack. My other question is whether this was a fully directed plot where AQAP controlled everything, or whether when they were in Yemen, the brothers got some money, some training and some advice, but then decided to do the attack themselves.
Essentially, it’s the difference between something like the 9/11 attack where every stage of the plot was planned out by Al Qaeda central. Whereas this, we don’t know yet whether AQAP was involved in every stage of what was going on or if the brothers themselves planned the attack in terms of target selection, reconnaissance and things like that.
Baron: I would not say the claim is late. Traditionally, AQAP has waited even later to claim responsibility.
And when you say, “Is it credible?” there are two levels to this.
One, is it credible that AQAP is making the claim? In that case, yes absolutely. They’ve got [Nasser bin Ali] al-Ansi who’s a big Al Qaeda/AQAP figure making the claim.
The second level is: Is AQAP making it look like they had more to do with the attack than they may actually have? Was this attack indeed planned in 2011, which as far as we know is the last time the Kouachi brothers were in Yemen? In that case, all we really have at this point is AQAP’s word. It would be pretty easy for AQAP to settle this if they have martyrdom videos of the Kouachi brothers or images of them meeting with Anwar al-Awlaki, or something like that.
The full shape and strength of AQAP and the brothers’ relationship, I think, largely remains unclear. It’ll take a few days if not weeks for this to become more clear.
Would you view this as an effort by Al Qaeda to make itself seem more relevant?
McCants: That’s my default interpretation, and it has been for the last two years. I’m very much inclined to view this through that lens. They would of course never come out and say that. That would seem too petty in this kind of video.
It also fits squarely with their main mission, which [Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri and [now deceased Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden before him stated repeatedly, which was to carry out attacks on the West.
If the video is to be believed, this plan was put in motion several years ago. So that preceded ISIS.
Baron: Ultimately, AQAP doesn’t need a reason to hit out at the West. That’s their raison d’être.
That being said, this definitely could not have come at a better time for Al Qaeda in the sense that after ISIS has been receiving such attention for so long, this really does bring a lot of attention back to core Al Qaeda and AQAP. There’s certainly a case to be made that it does make Al Qaeda, and by extension AQAP, look much more relevant.
Let’s not forget that due to Yemeni political considerations right now, AQAP is under more pressure domestically than it’s ever been. These attacks send a very strong message that AQAP remains a force to be reckoned with and can strike out at the West — if indeed they’re responsible for this.
Beyond this particular attack, is Al Qaeda in some kind of competition for dominance with ISIS?
McCants: I think they’re definitely in competition with ISIS. There has been a lot of blood spilled between them — actual blood — and there has been a war of words back and forth with mutual recrimination.
Al Qaeda has seen itself displaced as the leader of the global jihad movement that it helped start. I think you can see this in a spate of videos that were critical of the new so-called caliphate and putting forward Mullah Omar as a counter-caliph. There’s been a lot of maneuvering to offset the appeal of ISIS.
There’s a number of groups around the world whose factions thereof or entire groups have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Al Qaeda has seen its market share shrink as a result of ISIS.
Zelin: Most definitely. There’s been a competition for well over a year now between the two organizations.
Baron: There is this talk of the jihadi civil war. The Islamic State group has managed to divert a lot of the attention that used to go to core Al Qaeda and AQAP. They’ve hit out at both groups.
Beyond that, due to the caliphate proclamation and due to the fact that they’re occupying such a large amount of space and implementing governance, ISIS has a sexiness, for lack of a better word, that Al Qaeda doesn’t have anymore. An attack like this is a way of stealing the thunder back and gaining attention. It isn’t the main intention, but it is a side effect.
Related Film: Al Qaeda in Yemen
FRONTLINE correspondent and Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is one of the few journalists to ever infiltrate Al Qaeda-controlled territory in Yemen’s heartland. Watch our 2012 film below.