The Paris Attacks - one Plot or two?

We have fairly solid evidence by now that the attack on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was commissioned by AQAP. In total, there are three indications of this:

* On Friday, shortly after the perpetrators Cherif and Said Kouachi were killed by French police, a ranking AQAP cadre first sent a communique to several journalists by email and then posted a series of tweets that amounted to a claim of responsibility by the group

* Even before that, the two perpetrators during their operation had already told a by-stander and later a journalist they they were acting on behalf of AQAP

* Lastly, earlier today, an 11 minute video was published by AQAP. It appears legit and it features high ranking AQAP member Nasir bin Ali al-Anissi. In the video, he not only claimed the attack as AQAP's, but also insisted that one of the two brothers (he didn't say which one) had been appointed amir of the operation and had been in direct touch about the operation with Anwar al-Awlaki. This would in theory be consistent with reports according to which Said Kouachi spent some time in Yemen in 2011.

Overall, there is little reason to doubt that there was indeed a connection between the brothers and AQAP. The idea to attack Charlie Hebdo may very well have been born in Yemen in 2011, at a time when AQAP was experiencing an influx of foreign fighters, quite a few of whom where from France and who quite possibly would have known about Charlie Hebdo and the kind of cartoons the magazine had been printing.

So was this an AQAP attack? 

Yes. But it may have been more than just that.

Because there is another thread to be scrutinized here. On the morning following the Charlie Hebdo attack, a young man by the name of Amedy Koulibaly shot and killed a policewoman in Paris. The day after, when the Kouachi brothers had been tracked down by the police and were holed up in an industrial area near the airport with a hostage, Koulibaly re-entered the stage and took control of a Kosher supermarket. He took hostages as well and let it be known that he would kill these hostages unless the Kouachi brothers were let got.

Of course they weren't let got. But very interestingly, Koulibaly during the hostage situation explained to a journalist that he was acting on the behalf of the "Islamic State" terror organization. He re-iterated this claim in a video he later published. The IS did not claim the attack for itself. But according to some reports, it did praise the attack during a Friday sermon in the city of Mossul.

At the same time, though, Koulibaly also stated that he had co-ordinated with the Kouachi brothers.

Now how does all of that add up? Especially since AQ and the IS are enemies: They are fighting each other in Syria. They are competing for leadership of the global Jihadist movement. It is highly unlikely they respective leaderships would have agreed to a shared plot.

First of all, it is important to note that the Kouachi brothers have known Koulibaly for years. Apparently a while ago they asked him for money, presumably in order to help finance their plot. This may well be how he Koulibaly got into it all.

But what are we really looked at here? 

I believe it makes most sense to treat the Paris incidents as two separate plots. Even though there may have been a degree of co-ordination, perhaps only regarding timing, it effectively were two distinct plots. And intriguingly each of these attacks fits rather neatly with what AQ and IS have asked for and have been demanding or trying to accomplish for a while, respectively.

AQAP as well as AQ Central have been talking about revenge for the cartoons for a long time. In 2010, AQ Central sent an operative to Denmark in order to research Jyllandsposten, the paper that became known in 2005 for publishing Mohammed cartoons. He war arrested in time, but his plan seems to have been to take the staff as hostages and later execute them.

In 2011, German police arrested a man who they accused of having been dispatched by Junis al-Mauretani of AQ Central in order to plan attacks in Europe. Police recovered a notebook in is possesions. One item was about what they believed were potential targets. Charlie Hebdo was among them.

Add to that AQAP's several death lists with cartoonists' names on them and verbal and written threats against cartoonists - and what you get is a clear indication that striking either Jyllandsposten or Charlie Hebdo was something that AQ wanted really badly. Looked at from an AQ perspective, the Kouachi brothers were like two drones that finally and precisely hit their long assigned target. This long term way of thinking, in combination with a taste for precision, is an AQ hallmark.

The IS, on the other hand, has also asked it's followers for attacks in the West, but is not equally focussed on precision targeting. The IS has been talking about very crude kinds of attacks (Killing people with stones or tossing them of high places or even burning crop fields) and it has not spoken about Mohammed cartoons much at all. IS has also made it clear that anybody should feel invited to perpetrate such an attack in their name and that training by them or contact with them wouldn't be needed. That is true of Koulibaly, as far as we know. If his attack had occurred just by itself and the Charlie Hebdo attack had never happened, most experts would have had little trouble classifying it as an event most likely induced by IS propaganda and perpetrated by a radicalized individual.

I am, of course, aware of the fact that AQ and AQAP have also asked for similar attacks, but it wasn't their main approach. It has been for the IS though.

It is therefor safe to say that the acts that Koulibaly perpetrated fit the IS pattern much better than the al-Qaida pattern. Killing a policewoman because she was French and killing hostages because they were Jewish is rather crude. Koulibaly also said these people had to die because France was part of the anti-IS coalition. This is an argument that the Kouachi brothers did not make. But it is an argument that the IS made when it asked for attacks in the West.

So let's agree this was really two attacks that only took place simultaneously because the perpetrators knew each other and didn't mind about their different leanings and also because they obviously didn't care that AQ and IS may not like their unprecedented alliance: What does that mean? 

First of all: Pragmatism beats ideology. Apparently attackers can be more than robots. For Koulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, doing this together was more important than ideological purity. It is telling that in the AQAP video, Al-Anissi devotes a few sentences to this and interprets the simultaneity of the attacks as "co-incidence". he needs to do that to maintain ideological purity, but it is of course not true.

Secondly: We may need to take into account that this may happen again. Security services tend to sort radicals they are keeping track of in terms of known group allegiances. But these can be trumped. In the real life, things can happen that don't happen on an analyst's spread sheet. Both these plots could have happened weeks apart from one another. They only happened at the same time because the guys knew each other.

Thridly: AQ is not dead. It is still a threat, among other reasons precisely because it entertains a long term perspective.



NB: This Blog Post relies in parts on an analysis I wrote for the current edition of DIE ZEIT. It is available for purchase online via www.zeit.de 



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