U.S. Spies See Al Qaeda Fingerprints on Paris Attacks

The investigation is still in its infancy. But the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine bears the hallmarks of an al Qaeda affiliate, U.S. intelligence sources say.

01.09.15 2:22 PM ET

Mounting evidence points to al Qaeda as the driving force behind the massacre in Paris this week at the office of Charlie Hebdo, raising troubling questions about whether the terror group could spur a new wave of shooting attacks against the West.

French officials have identified the two suspected gunmen as brothers Chérif, 32, and Saïd Kouachi, 34, who are French citizens of Algerian descent and are believed to have traveled abroad to known al Qaeda training grounds. Said is believed to have traveled to Yemen in 2011 to be trained for months as a foreign fighter, as part of the group’s push to create attackers in the West. He received weapons training, sources told The Daily Beast, which could explain why the fighters appeared to be comfortable handling their weapons when they carried out the assault on Wednesday. Both brothers also were in Syria last year, intelligence sources said, though it’s yet unclear whom they met with while in the war-torn country.

Yemeni officials also say that Said met there with the notorious al Qaeda preacher, Anwar al Awlaki, in 2011, Reuters reported Friday. Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, was killed in an American drone strike in September of that year. He was an influential recruiter for the terrorist group and an inspiration for would-be jihadists in other countries. And Cherif was jailed for 18 months when he attempted travel to Iraq in 2005, in order to fight with an Islamist cell there, officials said.

As of Friday morning, police had surrounded the brothers, who are holed up in a building inside an industrial park northeast of Paris and have taken a hostage.

The cumulative intelligence to date strongly points toward al Qaeda as, at the least, inspiring the Kouachi brothers to take up their killing spree. U.S. and French intelligence and law-enforcement officials have been poring over records in an attempt to learn more about the two suspected gunmen. A U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that the men have been on the government’s no-fly list, which would ban them from traveling on a U.S. airliner, “for years,” declining to specify how long. The FBI has also been searching its records for any information that could assist the French investigation, a spokesperson added.

The brothers themselves claimed during the attack to be a part of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the group’s Yemeni branch. And an al Qaeda magazine geared toward jihadis living in the West called for the assassination of the the editor of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine, the first victim of the Paris attack.

Also under review, intelligence sources told The Daily Beast, is any connection the brothers may have to a Frenchman named David Drugeon, who became the chief bombmaker for a unit of al Qaeda called the Khorasan Group, which operates in Syria.

The group is closely allied with AQAP, and it was set up specifically to train foreigners who traveled to Syria on how to conduct attacks in their home countries. Khorasan’s efforts to bomb civilian airliners were so advanced, U.S. officials say, that they prompted President Obama to launch airstrikes on the group’s hideouts in Syria last September. Drugeon survived an airstrike last year and is believed to be still at large, officials have said.

If the Kouachi brothers are definitively linked to Khorasan or al Qaeda, the still-unanswered and more important question is whether they were merely inspired by the group—or if al Qaeda commanders directed the attack.

If the latter is true, it shows the the group is still capable of launching sophisticated and highly targeted attacks on the West—something U.S. national-security officials have long feared. But it would mark a departure from the group’s longtime strategy of bombing airliners and public targets in an attempt to kill as many civilians as possible. The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, by contrast, were an act of revenge against the publication, which has printed editorial cartoons that al Qaeda deemed offensive to Islam.

U.S. intelligence officials consider AQAP to be one of the most dangerous of the terror network’s affiliates. It has been connected to several attempted attacks on civilian airliners, including a failed effort to down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.

No senior al Qaeda leader has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack, though an AQAP-affiliated Twitter account posted messages praising the killings—and pointed followers to a recent issue of al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, which has called for attacks on Charlie Hebdo. U.S. intelligence and security officials are aware of those tweets as well as competing claims from individuals and groups affiliated with ISIS, al Qaeda’s main rival, which is also claiming responsibility for the attack. But sources said that the evidence so far is pointing away from an ISIS connection.

“My caution is that we only have a few firm data points at this juncture. But those points do speak more to [al Qaeda] than ISIS to me,” said Thomas Joscelyn, editor of the Long War Journal, an influential publication on counterterrorism.

Nearly 1,000 people have traveled from France to Iraq or Syria, making it the number one source of so-called foreign fighters in Europe. French officials were already on edge after a series of apparently unconnected attacks, including the stabbing of police officers. But the shootings this week have raised the specter of a new wave of more dangerous and al Qaeda actions, and French officials are bracing for the possibility of follow-on and copycat assaults.

If the Paris attack were directed by AQAP, it would suggest the group sought to “outbid ISIS” and demonstrate its ability to conduct overseas attacks, said Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute, who studies insurgent activity in North Africa. But although early signs point toward al Qaeda, no conclusive evidence has emerged the attack was orchestrated by the group.

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Indeed, such an attack would be against the norm for AQAP. In their past calls for attacks on Western targets, AQAP has focused on putting bombs on planes, not revenge attacks. That the attackers didn’t martyr themselves in defense of their faith also points away from an AQAP plot. At the very least it would be unusual for gunmen to flee, as the Kouachi brothers did, because al Qaeda members consider death to be a guarantee of paradise in the afterlife.

There is, however, a separate wing of AQAP designed to inspire their followers to conduct attacks against the West. The most recent issue of Inspire contains detailed instructions for building car bombs, and the magazine frequently draws up hit-lists. In the spring 2013 issue, the magazine named Stéphane Charbonnier, the Charlie Hebdo publishing director and cartoonist, in an article titled, “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam.” The gunmen sought to kill the man known as Charb first during Wednesday’s attack, witnesses said.

There is a particular focus in the magazine on attacking the United States, which al Qaeda calls a top target. In a 2014 article, there is a count of how many times “lone wolf” was used in U.S. congressional testimony to note the impact AQAP supporters can have on American policy. In another, there’s a “hypothetical interview” with President Obama using text from a May 2013 speech the president delivered at the National Defense University, in which he called for narrowing the scope of the global war on terror and said that all wars must eventually “come to an end.” America, the Inspire writers wrote, “has realized it’s too difficult to achieve victory in such a long ferocious war.”

But Zelin warns: “I don’t think we should read too much into the magazines. They make threats all the time.”

Either way, just the suggestion that the magazine prompted an attack could leave security officials scrambling, particularly in the United States, as the number of targets listed here is long. In the Spring 2014 issue, for example, Inspire proposed attacking cities and military facilities in northern Virginia, the site of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and targets in Los Angeles and Chicago.