MISGUIDED

ISIS & al Qaeda Killers Unite in Paris—and Beyond

Western intelligence officials are obsessed with tracking rival groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. They need to concentrate on tracking down the individual terrorists instead.

01.12.15 11:26 AM ET

PARIS — The slaughter of journalists, the murders of cops, and the savage executions of Jewish shoppers in Paris last week are forcing the security and intelligence services in Europe and the United States to reexamine their assumptions about the threat of jihadi violence. In crisis meetings in Paris and London today, leaders are trying to get a handle on what French Prime Minister Manuel Valls admitted were “clear failings” by the police and intelligence apparatus.

What went wrong? How could the authorities have failed to identify and watch very, very closely these men—Amedy Coulibaly and Chérif and Saïd Kouachi—who had records of involvement with violent jihad organizations dating back more than a decade; who established links to terrorist organizations in both North Africa and the Middle East; and who were in close contact with a convicted terrorist who once masterminded a plot to blow up the United States embassy in Paris?

Those are the sorts of dots that are supposed to be connected instantly by security services, and that are supposed to raise huge red flags. And yet, they did not.

Veteran intelligence and counterterror analysts in both the United States and France say they believe that part of the problem is the desire of Western governments, and especially Western politicians, to categorize terrorists in terms of their supposed organizations, and then to draw erroneous or irrelevant conclusions based on those categories.

As a result, officials were puzzled, if not stunned, when Chérif Kouachi told the French BFMTV network over the phone on Friday that his operation against the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine was backed by al Qaeda in Yemen, while his evident accomplice, Amedy Coulibaly, in a call to the same network and in a video released yesterday, claimed his allegiance was to the so-called Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph.

Aren’t those organizations, al Qaeda and ISIS, literally at war with each other on the Syrian battlefield? Aren’t their leaders, Ayman Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, bitterly competing for international recognition as the leaders of global jihad? The answer to both questions is yes. But, here’s the problem: Knowing that does not make anyone in the West any safer, because for the likes of the Kouachis and Coulibaly, those issues are secondary if not, indeed, entirely irrelevant.

“One says one thing, another says another,” a senior veteran of the CIA’s decades-long fight against jihadis told The Daily Beast, “but in the minds of these people—these three [in France] and thousands more—this is a distinction without a difference. The super-bosses may be wrapped up in these ideological fights, but the followers really are not.” And that is especially true for those who are intent on carrying out attacks in the West, far from the competition for geographical territory in Syria and the isolated ideological pontification of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.

“The footsoldiers don’t give a shit,” as this veteran analyst and operative put it. “And at the end of the day, who of us gives a shit who they are killing for?” The challenge is to stop the people on the ground in Europe or the United States or Canada or Australia or wherever they may be from murdering innocent people, and that requires precisely the kind of close surveillance that was not conducted on these guys.

To focus on organizations and imagine that the hit-men who claim allegiance to those organizations are following some rigid set of rules merely “distracts attention from the threat,” said the CIA veteran, who asked not to be named publicly criticizing his colleagues. “One of the problems with U.S. policy is that they are trying to stovepipe these groups when the problem is a global ideology.”

Bruce Hoffman, the director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, and author of several books on terrorism, notes that the rivalry between Zawahiri and his former disciple the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi is at least as much a matter of personalities and egos as it is of ideologies, which are essentially the same when it comes to inspiring terrorism. "Hotheads like these two brothers and their friend are less concerned about the ideological niceties and more like throwbacks to what Frantz Fanon [the famous theoretician of revolution and guerrilla warfare] called the catharsis of violence," said Hoffman.

Clint Watts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute writes that jihadi terrorism is on its way to becoming a social movement, based on three forces: "the growing development and global proliferation of social media, an unending call for jihad due to the intractable Syrian civil war, and the West’s failure to adapt to the wicked problem of non-state threats in a networked world."

The ideas behind it are simple and the understanding of them by killers like Coulibaly and the Kouachis is, at best, rudimentary. In the video in which he pledges allegiance to ISIS, Coulibaly has to read a phonetic version of the pledge in Arabic, and can barely pronounce each word. The actions of these men are based on simple equations:  Cartoonists insult the Prophet, therefore cartoonists must be killed; Jews occupy Muslim Palestine, therefore Jews must be killed.

Within that shallow pond of absolute hatred all sorts of evil organisms can develop and thrive, quite independently of organizational direction. And when law enforcement and intelligence services focus too much on one hierarchy or another, they completely miss the nature of these groups, says Alain Bauer, a prominent French criminologist and terrorism analyst. “They don’t understand how these things evolve, that this is a live thing, it is like a disease,” he told The Daily Beast. The virus constantly morphs and adapts, and much more quickly than the law-enforcement agencies trying to stop it.

The lone wolves or, better said, the stray dogs of radical jihad can dream up any justification they want for killing people, and have. That’s long been understood in counterterror circles. But the Charlie Hebdo and kosher grocery attacks that killed 17 innocents were obviously well planned, unquestionably well armed, and apparently had adequate funds to achieve their objectives. They were not the work of loners. But, professions of allegiance notwithstanding, they may not have been directed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the putative Islamic State either.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, who frequently advises U.S. security officials, notes that except for the commando-style arms training the Kouachis apparently received in Yemen four years ago, this is “still most likely a homegrown cluster of self-seekers who reached out to the two big jihadi supermarket chains of ideas”—al Qaeda and ISIS—“picked what they wanted from each, and concocted their scheme. That scheme was also not so carefully planned as people may think, with much less follow-through on what to do after the initial attack.” In that respect, it is reminiscent of the Madrid bombings of 2004, carried out by low-life thugs with North African connections, which killed 191 people and injured 1,800.

French investigators are now focusing increased (and very belated) attention on Djamel Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris in 2001, and showed himself at the time to be a skilled recruiter and organizer. He brought both Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly into a plot to spring another infamous North African terrorist, Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem, for which Coulibaly was jailed. It appears that even if the Kouachis trained for some time with al Qaeda forces in Yemen early in this decade, they waited for Coulibaly to get out of prison and arrange their financing and armament before carrying out their plot to slaughter journalists.

The French authorities have been so focused on the recent threat of people returning from Syria, says Hoffman, that they may have lost sight of those dangerous figures loose in French society who had never actually gone to the recently declared Islamic State.

So, was the mastermind of the Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery massacres in the Hadramhaut region of Yemen? Or the ISIS capital, Raqqa, in Syria? Or was the mastermind the man they used to meet in the rural region of Cantal in southern France, where Beghal lived for years under what was supposed to be close police surveillance? Beghal is now serving a 10-year sentence for his role in failed Belkacem jailbreak. But, despite his lawyer's denials, investigators now point to him as the likely brain behind the Paris attacks. While focusing on the threat from abroad, the French missed the danger taking shape, literally, in their own back yard.