On the trail

Spies Scramble to Unravel Hebdo Mystery

American jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki was clearly at the heart of the Paris attacks. To prevent future tragedies, intelligence agents must work out how his network continues to thrive after his death.

01.15.15 10:55 AM ET

From beyond the grave, an infamous American jihadi took revenge on the West with the savage attacks on journalists, cops, and Jews in Paris last week. Much about the planning, funding, and coordination of those atrocities remains unknown, and the intelligence services of Europe and the United States are still scrambling to figure out the operational details that will help them try to stop future attacks around the world. But there is now little question that New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who was drone-whacked by the Central Intelligence Agency in September 2011, inspired, directed, and probably provided the initial funding for the murderous Jan. 7 attack on the satirical tabloid weekly Charlie Hebdo.

On Wednesday, a week after the three-day rampage began in France, the current head of al-Awlaki’s organization, Nasr al-Ansi, claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in the name of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Despite various proclamations made in the video posted on jihadi websites—which called the attackers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, “heroes of Islam”—it did not answer key questions about the extent to which AQAP actually directed the attack. Nor did it present any of the usual evidence posted online by groups proclaiming their responsibility for mayhem. We have seen from the Kouachis no “martyrdom videos,” those last testaments typically pre-recorded by mass murderers who expect to die in suicide missions. But U.S. officials caution those may yet surface.

The basic claim of a tie between the Kouachis and AQAP did not come as a surprise. The leader of the operation, Chérif Kouachi, who had been part of jihadi conspiracies dating back to 2004, told French television news channel BFM explicitly in a phone call on Jan. 9, the day he died, that he was acting on orders from what he called “al Qaeda of Yemen.” The purpose was to avenge the cartoonists’ insults to the Prophet Muhammad, he said. And “it was Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki who financed” the trip to Kouachi trip to Yemen.

Although French authorities had records of the older brother, Saïd, traveling to Yemen in 2011, officials now believe Chérif may have used his brother’s passport to make the trip. Saïd did not have the same long rap sheet for jihad-related offenses and his travel documents were less likely to set of alarm bells with French and American security services.

When Chérif talked to BFM TV last Friday, he made a point of putting himself at the center of all this: “I was sent—me, Chérif Kouachi—by al Qaeda of Yemen,” he said. “I went out there and it was Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki who financed me.”

Some analysts in Europe and the United States have tied themselves in knots trying to parse the ideological differences between AQAP and the so-called Islamic State, a rival organization to which the other shooter in the Paris rampage, Amédy Coulibaly, pledged allegiance. (The AQAP video described Coulibaly’s murder of a policewoman on Jan. 8 and his attack at a Jewish grocery on Jan. 9, where he killed four people, as a laudable “coincidence.”)

Other analysts believe the killers’ claims of links to these organizations and the statements issued by the groups are not especially relevant to the hard task of preventing such attacks in the future. They see the operations as the work of a cell homegrown in France working with a veteran al Qaeda organizer named Djamel Beghal, who has been in and out of French prisons since 2001, when he plotted a suicide bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Paris.

In fact, all these scenarios and analyses are relevant to the current understanding of what actually happened. No one of them necessarily excludes the others—and there are hints in the evidence so far not only that a new paradigm is developing of semi-independent terrorist attacks in the West, but that the divisions between AQAP and Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Da’esh) are being patched up. If so, the interaction between jihadis with European and American nationality and the masterminds of terror in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and North Africa will become ever more dangerous.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says the Paris rampage “may very well presage a broader array of potential attacks than we’ve seen in the past.”

For years the major concern about AQAP was that it would enlist Westerners to carry out attacks on airliners, which seemed to be its main focus. “They have some of the preeminent bomb makers in the world,” Schiff told The Daily Beast. “What made AQAP particularly dangerous was the sophistication of their bomb makers and their efforts to conceal bomb-making materials and defeat their detection in airports.”

Those plots that have come close to succeeding, but in the end they've failed. Such was the case of the “underwear bomber” who almost blew up a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, but, when the bomb fizzled, only managed to burn the hell out of his groin. (Earlier that year, the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, reportedly went to the same Arabic language school in Yemen as Saïd Kouachi.)

In a change of tactics, AQAP “may very well take the view that they’ll give recruits some training and money and send them back” to their home countries, says Schiff. Some may be able to carry out attacks, and “some may fall through,” he says. “That’s just the cost of doing business.”

The putative Islamic State is playing a similar game. “ISIL puts out its propaganda urging [those who are sympathetic] throughout the world to become lone wolves,” says Schiff, “and ’s easy because if anyone does take the bait then they get the credit for it. This is all about attracting recruits and money and a competition between al Qaeda and ISIL about who is the biggest, baddest terrorist on the block.”

Coulibaly, before his attack on the kosher grocery where he died in a hail of gunfire, made a phone call to BFM and also produced a martyrdom video in which he not only pledged bayat, or fealty, to the self-appointed caliph of the putative Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but explained his version of his relationship with the Kouachis’ operation.

Coulibaly had known Chérif Kouachi since they were in jail together in the middle of the last decade, and both had been mentored there by Djamel Beghal. They were also involved together in a thwarted jailbreak plot to liberate the infamous bomb maker who blew up a commuter train in central Paris in 1995. “The powerful link between them has been their long-term friendship,” says French terrorism analyst Jean-Charles Brisard. “That has been much more powerful than any affiliation to any group.”

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By some accounts, Kouachi is believed to have received $20,000 from al-Awlaki in 2011, but that money probably ran out over the course of three years as he plotted the Charlie Hebdo attack, tried to acquire weapons without setting off alarm bells with French authorities, and waited for an opportune moment.

Probably Chérif Kouachi went for help to Coulibaly, a petty criminal with contacts among arms dealers in the European underworld. The Belgian press has reported that Coulibaly bought some of the weapons used in last week's attacks from shadowy merchants of death in Brussels.

In any case, Coulibaly claims in his farewell video that he “helped [the Kouachi] project by giving them a few thousand euros… so they could finish wrapping up what they’d bought,” and that the attacks in Paris were loosely “synchronized” at the beginning, but not afterward, in the course of those three terrible days.

Also contributing to this story were Christopher Dickey, Jamie Dettmer, and Shane Harris