Yemen-Based Group’s Claim of Paris Attack May Boost Its Ability to Strike the West

Al-Qaeda Affiliate Could Bolster Recruitment, Resources, Pavel Says

The claim by al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen that it was behind the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, if true, would boost the group’s ability to plan similar attacks in the West, according to Atlantic Council analyst Barry Pavel.

In a video posted on its Twitter account on Wednesday, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said it carried out the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris to avenge the publication by the satirical magazine of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The group vowed even more attacks in the West.

If AQAP’s claim is true, “they have reached into Western societies, they terrorized a country for days,” said Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

“This means AQAP may garner more recruits, more funding, and other resources that would help them to plan and train for future attacks somewhere in the West,” he added.

State Department deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, confirmed the authenticity of the AQAP video. “This, we believe, likely came from AQAP’s media wing, the latest example of the brutality that is really AQ’s calling card, certainly how AQAP is the most dangerous affiliate associated with AQ core, particularly in terms of external plotting outside of their region where they’re located,” Harf told reporters at the daily briefing.

In the video, Nasr al-Ansi, a senior AQAP commander, said the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who carried out the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, were “heroes.” Both brothers are believed to have visited Yemen in 2011.

Al-Ansi said the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011, had organized the attack.

Twelve people were killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which on Wednesday published a cartoon of a tearful prophet Muhammad on the cover of its first edition since the massacre.

While French security forces hunted the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly attacked a kosher grocery store in Paris.

The attacks sparked three days of terror that left seventeen persons dead, before all three attackers were killed.

In a video message after the attack, Coulibaly said he had worked with the Kouachis and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  His claim would represent an example of collaboration between al Qaeda and ISIS, two rival groups whose affiliates have clashed in Syria.

If Coulibaly’s claim is true, “we have very significant and new problems in our counterterrorism than we had before” the attacks in Paris, said Pavel.

The threat AQAP poses to the West is “very serious and more should be done to prevent a potential attack in the US like we saw in Paris,” said Rudolph Atallah, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Pavel and Atallah spoke in interviews with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts are below:

Q: If AQAP’s claim that it was behind the attacks in Paris is accurate it would be the first successful attack by AQAP in the West. Has the group broadened its focus to include Western targets and how serious is the threat from terrorist sleeper cells in the West?

Pavel: The evolution of the most prominent terrorist groups since 2001 has been first a very centralized effort from al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, which then morphed into regional franchises that included AQAP.

More recently, the rise of [the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq] as a significant competitor brand with a somewhat different model, tactics, and objectives, but nonetheless very effective, was even more of a fractionation. More individuals were inspired by, as opposed to actions and attacks that were sponsored, trained for, and directed out of a central ISIS headquarters.

Since the rise of ISIS there has been a competition between ISIS and key al Qaeda affiliates. AQAP has always been considered one of the most dangerous. To me this represents one of the manifestations of ISIS’ initial success, which is at least the execution of what appears to be, if the information turns out to be true, a successful AQAP attack.

We don’t know about the timing. Perhaps this attack was already planned for years ago and only became manifest now. It remains to be seen whether this is indeed a response to ISIS’ prominence or whether it happens to be a coincidence in terms of timing.

Nonetheless, if it is truly AQAP, this does represent a very important data point for the West to address. If true, they have reached into Western societies, they terrorized a country for days. This means AQAP may garner more recruits, more funding, and other resources that would help them to plan and train for future attacks somewhere in the West.

It raises a lot of important strategic questions about how the United States and its allies respond in terms of military instruments. In other words, do we intensify our efforts to work with the Yemeni authorities to destroy AQAP assets in Yemen? It also raises very important homeland defense questions, including on intelligence sharing, which presumably will be intensified, homeland defense, and law-enforcement priorities.

Atallah: The attack in Paris is the first-known successful attack by AQAP in the West. The group failed on Christmas Day in 2009 when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set off his “underwear bomb” on a U.S. flight heading to Detroit.

In the 2010, Qasim al-Raymi threatened the US in a statement saying, “Today, you have attacked us in the middle of our household, so wait what will befall you in the middle of yours… We will blow up the earth from underneath your feet.” 

That same year, AQAP was accused of sending bombs in two packages destined to synagogues in Chicago.

In an open statement, AQAP claimed its goals are “the expulsion of Jews and crusaders” from the region, the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate, the introduction of Sharia, and the liberation of Muslim lands. Since then, it has conducted numerous attacks in Yemen and stepped up its attempts against Western targets. 

The threat is very serious and more should be done to prevent a potential attack in the US, like we saw in Paris.

Q: How is the US faring in its war on AQAP in Yemen?

Pavel: There have been some successes, but obviously there is a long way to go. I cannot characterize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki as anything other than a success, but there is a long way to go regarding the current threats that are already manifest as well as dealing with the root causes in Yemen that are generating and providing fertile ground for extremist groups to plan, train, and operate.

Atallah: The US needs to do a lot more against AQAP. Our current strategy is not working.  From the State Department’s 2013 country report on terrorism it is evident that AQAP is not slowing down, but rather stepping up its activities.

AQAP is becoming more sophisticated in its attacks. If the US were making a difference against AQAP, the group would be on the defensive with a lot less attacks, rather than on the offensive. 

Last April, CNN reported on a new video that was released that same month showing the largest gathering of al Qaeda members in years in Yemen.  Western intelligence either didn’t know about it or couldn’t react in time to strike, which mean, something is flawed in our approach and we need to fix it.

Q: Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a French policewoman January 8 and four hostages at a kosher grocery store the next day, in a video message pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, a rival of AQAP, and said he was working with the brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. Is it likely that IS and AQAP, two fierce rivals, are now cooperating?

Pavel: It remains to be seen whether this is an example of either a claim [of an affiliation with ISIS] that is not really substantiated, an individual claim where he buys a flag and says ‘I am now part of ISIS,’ or a much stronger link between this individual and ISIS central. If it is the latter, then we are seeing a further evolution [of the terrorist threat].

At one point people said al Qaeda and Islamic State would never work together. If the latter is true, then here is an example where that is certainly a possibility that has to be considered. If that is the case we have very significant and new problems in our counterterrorism than we had before this event.

Atallah: According to news agencies, Amedy Coulibaly declared allegiance to ISIS while the Kouachi brothers were followers of AQAP. The Kouachis brothers and Coulibaly knew each other since 2005 before the two organizations split

Coulibaly’s video, where he swears allegiance to ISIS, did not originate from ISIS’ sophisticated central media center. It was poorly made and raises many questions. I doubt the two groups are working together, but members on both sides may be networked which is something that should be monitored. 

I think it’s important to refrain from making emphatic statements that ISIS and AQAP will never work with each other in the future, anything is possible.
Q: The US has a visa waiver program, which allows citizens from a number of mostly European countries to enter the US without a waiver. Given the large number of Westerners going across to train in jihad in places like Syria and Yemen, what should the US be doing to beef up this aspect of its counterterrorism strategy?

Atallah: The visa waiver program works well, but it has its challenges. Radicalized Westerners can easily use it to enter the United States if not on a watch list. I believe we need to keep working closely with our Western allies to make sure individuals are vetted before travel.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Rudolph Atallah

Image: A leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Sheikh Nasr bin Ali Alansi, declares the group’s authorship of the Paris attacks in a video released by its media arm. (Al Malahim/ CC License)