In the days since the siege at the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, the press and social media sites have been consumed with the possible answers to one question: Beyond the two shooters, Said and Cherif Kouachi, who is responsible for the attack that killed 12 people at the magazine’s offices?
On Friday, shortly after the gunmen were killed by French forces in a raid on a printing plant outside of Paris, a source from within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) provided The Intercept with a series of messages and statements taking responsibility for the attacks, asserting that AQAP’s leadership “directed” the raid on the magazine to avenge the honor of the Prophet Mohammed.
Moments after The Intercept published these statements, an AQAP official, Bakhsaruf al-Danqaluh tweeted, in Arabic, the exact paragraphs the AQAP source provided us. Within an hour of that, AQAP’s senior cleric, Sheikh Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari, released an audio statement through AQAP’s official media wing, praising the attack. “Some of the sons of France showed a lack of manners with Allah’s messengers, so a band of Allah’s believing army rose against them, and they taught them the proper manners, and the limits of freedom of speech,” Nadhari declared. “How can we not fight the ones that attacked the Prophet and attacked the religion and fought the believers?” While heaping passionate praise on the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Nadhari stopped short of making any claim that AQAP directed or was in any way involved with the planning.
Historically, when AQAP has taken credit for attacks, it has used al Qaeda central’s al-Fajr Media to distribute statements and video or audio recordings through the AQAP media outlet al-Malahim to a variety of jihadist forums. But over the past year, AQAP has broadened its distribution strategy and has begun using Twitter and other social media sites. While AQAP continues to use al-Malahim, “the vast majority if not all of the releases are now released onto Twitter first via authenticated Twitter accounts that have become the first point of release,” says Aaron Zelin, an expert on al Qaeda and other militant groups and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “This has been the case ever since late July 2014, though AQAP had been making a slow transition going all the way back to early 2014.” Zelin’s analysis of this new distribution strategy tracks with how AQAP sources began to assert responsibility for the Paris attacks last week, with the one caveat being that an AQAP source provided the tweets in advance to a media outlet, The Intercept.
In the past, AQAP publicly took responsibility through its official media and communication channels. None of that has happened yet in the case of the Kouachi brothers’ Paris attack.
[Update: On Wednesday, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula officially claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in a statement issued by its media arm. The statement declared that the attack was in retaliation for the magazine’s depictions of the prophet Mohammed in its cartoons. It called the simultaneous assault on the Kosher grocery story by Amedy Coulibaly a coincidence because of the men’s relationships with each other and said it was not the result of AQAP’s coordination with rival group Islamic State.]
For example, soon after the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot, in which a suicide bomber on a Northwest Airlines flight tried unsuccessfully to set off plastic explosives sewn into his underwear, AQAP posted a web statement praising perpetrator Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a hero who had “penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in airports of the world” and “reached his target.” The statement boasted that the “mujahedeen brothers in the manufacturing department” made the device and that it did not detonate due to a “technical error.” Four months after the attempted attack, AQAP released a video showing Abdulmutallab, armed with a Kalashnikov and wearing a keffiyeh, at a desert training camp in Yemen. In the video, masked men conducted live-ammunition training. One scene showed AQAP operatives firing at a drone flying overhead. At the end of the video, Abdulmutallab read a martyrdom statement in Arabic. “You brotherhood of Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula have the right to wage jihad because the enemy is in your land,” he said, sitting before a flag and a rifle and dressed in white. “God said if you do not fight back, he will punish you and replace you.”
In analyzing AQAP’s potential role in the Paris attack, it’s worth remembering the four-month delay between the group praising the 2009 underwear plot and the group releasing evidence it actually orchestrated the act. Short of such video or photographic documentation, and even with an official statement from AQAP’s leadership, it would be difficult to prove that AQAP indeed sponsored the raid on Charlie Hebdo.
Even if AQAP did not “direct” the attack, there is seemingly credible information emerging to prove that at least one — and potentially both — of the Kouachi brothers spent time with AQAP in Yemen. Said Kouachi reportedly made multiple trips to Yemen from 2009 to 2012 and spent time at Sana’a’s Iman University, which was founded by radical preacher Abdel Majid al-Zindani. The French magazine L’Express reported that French intelligence sources claim that Said Kouachi crossed into Yemen from Oman along with another unidentified French citizen in the summer of 2011. Reuters, meanwhile, reports that both Kouachi brothers received weapons training from AQAP in Yemen’s Marib province, an al Qaeda stronghold, citing two anonymous Yemeni officials.
Earlier, Mohammed Albasha, the Yemeni government’s spokesperson in Washington D.C. urged caution in placing too much weight on such assertions. On Friday, he tweeted:
On the day of the attack in Paris, Cherif Kouachi reportedly told a French journalist that he and his brother were acting on behalf of AQAP and that their travel to Yemen was financed by Anwar al Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in northern Yemen in September 2011. “I just want to tell you that we are defenders of the Prophet. I, Cherif Kouachi, was sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen. I was over there. I was financed by Imam Anwar al-Awlaki,” he said.
A witness to the magazine shooting claimed one of the men shouted during the assault, “You can tell the media that it’s al Qaeda in Yemen.” None of these allegations, in and of themselves, prove that AQAP sponsored or directed the attacks, but the allegations do raise the prospect that, at a minimum, AQAP may have played a role in preparing the brothers for action. As I noted in my previous piece, since 2010 AQAP has publicly promoted a campaign calling on Muslims in Western countries, including France, to assassinate cartoonists who draw the prophet Mohammed, particularly those who do so in what is perceived as an insulting and demeaning manner. Awlaki himself penned an article for the first issue of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire in June 2010 making that direct call and providing a list of suggested targets, including a U.S. citizen in Seattle, Washington.
The suspect in the shooting at the kosher market in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, reportedly had a relationship to the Kouachi brothers going back to at least 2010. In a purported martyr video released after he was killed by French forces on Friday, Coulibaly claims he worked in conspiracy with the brothers to produce Friday’s bloodbath. To complicate matters further, he stated in the video that he had made an oath of loyalty to the head of the Islamic State, ISIS, and the self-proclaimed Caliph. “I am pledging my allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” Coulibaly said. “I have made a declaration of allegiance to the Caliph and the declaration of a Caliphate.” He also claimed he had coordinated his attack with the Kouachi brothers, though no evidence of this has emerged. “We did things a bit together and a bit apart, so that it’d have more impact,” he said.
Last Friday, during a sermon in the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq, a leading ISIS cleric declared that his group was behind the Paris attacks. “We started with the France operation for which we take responsibility. Tomorrow will be in Britain, America and others,” said Abu Saad al-Ansari. “This is a message to all countries participating in the [U.S.-led] coalition that has killed Islamic State members.”
AQAP and ISIS have been engaged in a very public and bitter feud on social media and through official communications for the past year. While not impossible, it is unlikely that AQAP and ISIS at a high level agreed to cooperate on such a mission. An AQAP source told me that the group supports what Coulibaly did and that it does not matter what group — if any — assisted him, just that he was a Muslim who took the action. ISIS, clearly seeking to capitalize on the events in Paris, has now reportedly issued a call for its supporters to attack police forces. Of course, it is also plausible that all three of the men received some degree of outside help, but created their own cells to plot the Paris attacks. Whether Coulibaly was actually working with the Kouachi brothers or was inspired by their attack is also unknown.
For now, we have little more than verified statements from an AQAP source, a claim of responsibility from an ISIS figure and words of praise from both ISIS and some key AQAP figures. Taking responsibility for the attacks, whether true or not, could aid either group in fundraising and in elevating its prominence in the broader jihadist movement globally.
The Truth About Anwar Awlaki
Over the weekend, Anwar Awlaki’s name has once again been splashed on the front page of newspapers and his image and videos have again been referenced in international television coverage. There are two primary reasons for this: the purported Cherif Kouachi statement quoted above that Awlaki had financed a trip to Yemen, and a statement given by an anonymous Yemeni intelligence official to Reuters, asserting that Said Kouachi met with Awlaki in Shebwah province in Yemen at some point in 2011. AQAP has not confirmed either alleged link to Awlaki. This is another situation that would require more documentation, such as photos of either or both of the Kouachi brothers with Awlaki.
Whatever potential relationship Awlaki had to the Kouachi brothers, the media coverage of Awlaki’s history has been riddled with inaccuracies, exaggerations of his role within AQAP and passing of anonymous US government pronouncements as facts. There is no doubt that Anwar Awlaki very publicly called on Muslims in Western countries to conduct attacks in the U.S. and Europe or to travel to Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to fight jihad. Awlaki very publicly called for the assassination of cartoonists and others who he saw as disgracing the Prophet Mohammed. But Awlaki was never the “leader” of AQAP, and the title bestowed on him by President Obama in announcing Awlaki’s death — head of external operations — was created by the U.S., not AQAP. In fact, when the actual leader of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, wrote to Osama bin Laden in 2010, asking for his blessing to put Awlaki in charge of the group, Bin Laden shot it down.
[Editor’s Note: Some of the reporting in this story is drawn from author Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.”]
On August 27, 2010, Bin Laden ordered his deputy Shaykh Mahmud, also known as Atiya Abdul Rahman, to relay a message to Wuhayshi. Bin Laden seemed to view Awlaki as an ally and a potentially valuable asset to al Qaeda’s goals. The problem, Bin Laden explained, was that Awlaki was an unknown quantity to al Qaeda central, a man who had yet to prove his mettle in actual jihad. “The presence of some of the characteristics by our brother Anwar…is a good thing, in order to serve Jihad,” Bin Laden wrote, adding that he wanted “a chance to be introduced to him more.” Bin Laden explained, “Over here, we are generally assured after people go to the battlefield and are tested there.” He asked Wuhayshi for “the resumé, in detail and lengthy, of the brother Anwar al-Awlaki,” as well as a written statement from Awlaki himself explaining his “vision in detail.” Wuhayshi, Bin Laden asserted, should “remain in his position where he is qualified and capable of running the matter in Yemen.”
An Awlaki Myth
None of this is to say that Awlaki was not involved with direct plotting of acts of terrorism, but that there has been no actual evidence produced to support the claim. Awlaki’s assassination was ordered by President Obama despite the fact that Awlaki was not officially indicted by the U.S. on any charges of terrorism. His case was litigated by anonymous US officials in the media and his death warrant signed in secret by the U.S. president.
It is often asserted as fact that Awlaki directed or encouraged U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan to carry out the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009. But the actual evidence to support this does not exist. Awlaki did indeed email with Hassan, but those emails read like Hassan was a fanboy and Awlaki was politely dismissing him. Awlaki did, after the fact, praise Hasan’s actions, but he denied any claim of direct involvement. It would be uncharacteristic of Awlaki — given his public calls for such actions — to deny a role he would have been proud of playing.
Soon after the [Fort Hood] shooting, the media began reporting that Hasan had been in contact with Awlaki, adding that Hasan had attended Awlaki’s Virginia mosque in 2001, though the fact that Awlaki had only met him once was not reported. That the two men exchanged at least eighteen e-mails beginning in December 2008 became a major focus of attention and hype from journalists and politicians. But when U.S. officials reviewed the emails, they determined them to be innocuous. According to The New York Times, “a counterterrorism analyst who examined the messages shortly after they were sent decided that they were consistent with authorized research Major Hasan was conducting and did not alert his military superiors.” Awlaki later told a Yemeni journalist that Hasan had reached out to him and primarily asked him religious questions. Awlaki claimed he neither “ordered nor pressured” Hasan to carry out any attacks, a contention supported by the emails once they were made public. But Awlaki’s reaction to the shooting made such details irrelevant in the eyes of the U.S. public and government.
A few days after the Fort Hood shootings, Awlaki published a blog post with the not-so-subtle title: “Nidal Hasan Did the Right Thing.” Hasan, Awlaki wrote, “is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people. This is a contradiction that many Muslims brush aside and just pretend that it doesn’t exist.” Hasan “opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done? In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.” Awlaki called on other Muslims within the U.S. Army to carry out similar operations. “Nidal Hasan was not recruited by Al-Qaida,” Awlaki later said. “Nidal Hasan was recruited by American crimes, and this is what America refuses to admit.”
Terrorism analysts and journalists often mention that Awlaki had contact with three of the 9/11 hijackers and, at times, imply he had foreknowledge of the plot. Awlaki was the imam at two large mosques, one in San Diego and later at one in Falls Church, Virginia. Three of the men, at various points did indeed attend those mosques, but the 9/11 Commission asserted that the future hijackers “respected Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him” but added that “the evidence is thin as to specific motivations.” What is seldom mentioned is that soon after 9/11, on February 5, 2002, Awlaki also met with Pentagon employees inside the Department of Defense when he was officially invited to lecture at the DoD. After being vetted for security, Awlaki “was invited to and attended a luncheon at the Pentagon in the secretary of the Army’s Office of Government Counsel.” (It is unlikely Awlaki dined on the “East Side West Side” sandwich offered at the event, which included beef, turkey and bacon on marbled rye).
Awlaki is also frequently mentioned as the mastermind of the 2009 underwear bomb plot. But, again, this is far from a proven fact. Awlaki’s role in the “underwear plot” was unclear. After the failed bombing, Awlaki claimed that Abdulmutallab was one of his “students.” Tribal sources in Shabwah province told me that al Qaeda operatives reached out to Awlaki to give religious counseling to Abdulmutallab, but that Awlaki was not involved in the plot. While praising the attack, Awlaki said he had not been involved with its conception or planning. “Yes, there was some contact between me and him, but I did not issue a fatwa allowing him to carry out this operation,” Awlaki told Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in an interview for Al Jazeera a few weeks after the attempted attack: “I support what Umar Farouk has done after I have been seeing my brothers being killed in Palestine for more than sixty years, and others being killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And in my tribe too, U.S. missiles have killed” women and “children, so do not ask me if al-Qaeda has killed or blown up a U.S. civil[ian] jet after all this. The 300 Americans are nothing comparing to the thousands of Muslims who have been killed.”
Shaye pressed Awlaki on his defense of the attempted downing of the plane, pointing out to Awlaki that it was a civilian airliner. “You have supported Nidal Malik Hasan and justified his act by saying that his target was a military not a civilian one. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s plane was a civilian one, which means the target was the U.S. public?” Shaye pressed him. “It would have been better if the plane was a military one or if it was a U.S. military target,” Awlaki replied. But, he added:
“The American people live [in] a democratic system and that is why they are held responsible for their policies. The American people are the ones who have voted twice for Bush the criminal and elected Obama, who is not different from Bush as his first remarks stated that he would not abandon Israel, despite the fact that there were other antiwar candidates in the U.S. elections, but they won very few votes. The American people take part in all its government’s crimes. If they oppose that, let them change their government. They pay the taxes which are spent on the army and they send their sons to the military, and that is why they bear responsibility.”
The U.S. government continues to maintain that Awlaki personally directed the Christmas Day bomb plot. Its source for that is an alleged confession given to investigators by Abdulmutallab immediately after he was apprehended. But that confession has serious problems. Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who has scrutinized this case more extensively than any other journalist, has written several analyses of this case. “Abdulmutallab gave 3 ‘confessions,’” Wheeler told me. “The first on December 25, 2009, after he was captured. In that he attributed all his direction to ‘Abu Tarak,’ which [the] DOJ would later claim was just a pseudonym for Awlaki, which is impossible.” In Yemen, I asked many sources close to Awlaki if they had ever heard this nickname used or given to Awlaki. None had.
The second confession started on January 29, 2010 with the High Value detainee Intelligence Group established by President Obama in late 2009. Abdulmutallab’s lawyer claimed the HIG interrogated his client after he had been held in solitary confinement. “Within days, he implicated Awlaki in everything, including making a martyrdom video with AQ’s greatest English propagandist in Arabic, and final instructions,” Wheeler adds. “The prosecution willingly agreed not to rely on this confession after the defense said it had been made in conjunction with plea discussions.”
The final confession, Wheeler says, was on October 12, 2011. Abdulmutallab publicly plead guilty to conspiracy and other charges. No one else, including U.S. citizen Awlaki was charged in the alleged conspiracy. “In that plea, Abdulmutallab attributed earlier propaganda from Awlaki as an inspiration, but Abdulmutallab did not implicate Awlaki or anyone else as his co-conspirators,” says Wheeler. “In other words, Abdulmutallab confessed three times. In only one of those confessions did he implicate Awlaki, and that confession was the only one not presented at ‘trial.’” Instead it was used in Abdulmutallab’s sentencing.
Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux contributed research to this article.
Correction: This story incorrectly described the occupational breakdown of the people killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Most, but not all, of the victims were media workers. 9:26pm ET Jan 12 2014