The unanswered questions after AQAP takes credit for the Charlie Hebdo attacks

A suspected Al Qaeda militant shown behind bars in Yemen.
A suspected Al Qaeda militant shown behind bars in Yemen.
Image: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed
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A leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for the attacks on the staff of French magazine Charlie Hebdo in an 11-minute video released today.

More than a week after 12 people were killed by two French-born brothers of Algerian descent, Cherif and Said Kouachi, the Islamist terror group based in Yemen said it planned and financed their assault. But it’s not clear yet whether this is simply opportunistic propaganda from AQAP,  or truly their handiwork—US and other intelligence agencies have yet to confirm this claim publicly.

What we do know: The Kouachis reportedly went to Yemen in 2011, where they received some military training and met with Anwar Al-Awlaki, a cleric tied to AQAP who was later killed in a controversial US drone strike. (Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed without due process.) Before being killed by police, the brothers also reportedly told witnesses and news media that they were sent by AQAP.

However, French officials say the brothers were part of the same group of operatives as Amedy Coulibaly, another French-born Islamist who took hostages at a kosher supermarket in France last week before being killed in a police assault. Coulibaly claimed allegiance to ISIL, the Islamist militias that control large territories in Iraq and Syria. (He also said his attacks were coordinated with those of the Kouachis.)

AQAP and ISIL, while ideologically copacetic, are seen as rivals, competing for the same funding sources and recruits; ISIL was initially an offshoot of Al Qaeda before breaking with that organization’s current leader, Ayman Al-Zawhiri. While it wouldn’t be unusual for Islamists to sympathize with both groups, close operational cooperation between them would be surprising.

What may be more likely is that these attacks were inspired and perhaps funded by AQAP—law enforcement is working to source the weapons used in the attack, which came from outside of France—but not planned in the sense that Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks. The group is currently facing significant pressure in Yemen, where it is caught between Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias that have seized control of much of the country and government forces backed by the US.

But even if AQAP’s role was limited to finance, that will raise an ugly irony in France: The country has come under fire by US officials for paying ransoms to terrorist groups like AQAP, even as the US has faced criticism for refusing to pay up, leading to several of its citizens being executed.