What's the evidence Al Qaeda in Yemen organized the Paris attacks?

Their word alone. Nasr al-Ansi, a militant commander, made the claim in a video released this week. 

In this image made from militant video posted on the Twitter account of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Wednesday, Nasr al-Ansi, a top commander of AQAP, speaks about last week's deadly assault on a French satirical newspaper.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said it planned and ordered the terrorist attacks in Paris last week that left 20 people dead. Did they really?

The group, also known as Al Qaeda in Yemen, has been heavily involved in attempted attacks on the West, so it would has an incentive to make a false claim. Its attempts in recent years at spectacular attacks on the West, including a foiled attempt to smuggle bombs onto cargo planes bound for Europe and the US, have all failed. 

And its star has been eclipsed among fans of jihad by the so-called Islamic State, which has built a powerful army in Iraq and Syria and has been hogging the limelight with videotaped murders of captives and enslavement of captured minorities.

Two of the Paris attackers, the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi who committed murder at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, had pledged loyalty to AQAP, while the third, Amedy Coulibaly, made a video before his massacre at a Jewish-owned supermarket in Paris saying he was a follower of the Islamic State. 

But AQAP offers no new evidence for its claim. The video statement read by AQAP majordomo Nasr al-Ansi, from behind his immaculately groomed and dyed beard, contains no information about the attacks or attackers that couldn't be gleaned from press reports prior to it being issued. He opens with the standard litany of attacks on the US, France, and other Western countries. They are all the "Party of Satan," and "Zionist crusaders," and they're pursuing a genocidal global war to wipe out all Muslims etc. He then says the group "chose the target, made the plan, financed the operation, and appointed its leader (emir)."

He goes on to claim that US-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a US airstrike in Yemen in September 2011 along with another American national and AQAP propagandist, had been involved in "arranging" the attack. Footage of Awlaki is shown at times behind Ansi as he speaks.

'Arranged' by a dead preacher?

Such a claim seems jarring given that Alwaki died three years before the Paris attacks. However, his role in the group was largely about inspiring and recruiting would-be terrorists from the West. He combined jihadi religious credentials with impeccable English and was involved with the group's English-language publication Inspire, designed to encourage attacks by people who might never have had any direct contact with the group.

Consider Faisal Shahzad, whose attempt to set off a car-bomb in New York's Times Square failed in May 2010. He told investigators that he was a faithful follower of Awlaki's online sermons, and was encouraged by them to attempt mass murder.

Or take Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber" who failed in his attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit in December 2009. He may have had some direct contact with Awlaki before his attack, according to Western officials, and had spent time at Iman University in Sanaa, Yemen, where Awlaki had claimed to work as a lecturer.

John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting with an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Afghanistan in 2001, had also attended Iman University in Yemen.

US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who murdered 12 people at Fort Hood in 2009, was in email contact with Awlaki and was an avid follower of his sermons, as were a number of other suspects in North America who were arrested in the years prior to Awlaki's death.

Given the history of Awlaki's "inspiration" of attacks, on that ground alone it could perhaps be said he was involved in "arranging" the attacks in Paris.

It's even possible one or both of the brothers may have met Awlaki in person. An unnamed Yemeni official was quoted by Reuters as saying that Said Kouachi traveled to Yemen in 2011 and met with Awlaki, before the preacher was killed in an American airstrike. Both brothers claimed to have gone to Yemen. AFP reported that Said had spent time at Sanaa's Iman University.

Reasons to doubt

But what hasn't been found, at least not yet, is evidence of ongoing contact between the Kouachis and AQAP in Yemen.

More likely, at least from an operational security perspective, is that they had their radicalization vacations in Yemen and returned home with inchoate bloodthirsty intentions, but that the planning and execution would be largely guided by their own hands. In recent years, AQAP has had to grow more wary about its foreign recruits, given the evidence of intelligence penetration by the CIA's successful targeting of Awlaki and other prominent members. So the group's leaders would probably have held the Kouachis at arms length.

And the involvement of Coulibaly, a career criminal who was radicalized while serving time in prison for armed robbery in France, weighs in favor of the Paris attacks being self-actualized rather than guided from abroad.

Coulibaly served time with (and eventually befriended) Cherif Kouachi, who was jailed in France for helping to send foreign fighters to Al Qaeda in Iraq in the middle of the last decade.

More importantly he also was in prison with Djamel Beghal, a Frenchman jailed for planning to attack the US Embassy in Paris. Beghal, who has deep ties with Al Qaeda stretching back to the 1990s, acted as a kind of spiritual mentor to a circle of would-be jihadis in that prison, including Kouachi and Coulibaly.

After prison Kouachi and Coulibaly clearly remained in touch, but Coulibaly apparently preferred the Islamic State's flavor of jihad to Al Qaeda's. There's nothing particularly strange in the supporters of the two groups working together in Paris, since their ultimate goals are the same and their worldviews are aligned. But it's hard to imagine an AQAP-directed plot allowing for the involvement of a member openly proclaiming allegiance to a rival outfit trying to displace Al Qaeda as the leader of global jihad.

To be sure, there is also no evidence that AQAP didn't play a larger role. And evidence can take time to emerge. AQAP waited four months after "underwear bomber" Abdulmutallab's failure and arrest in the US to release a video of him posing with a rifle at one of their camps in Yemen and reading a martyrdom statement.

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