ISTANBUL— A just-released video—and the flight of the partner of one of the men involved to ISIS-controlled territory—seems to confirm that rival jihadi groups coordinated last week’s terror attacks in Paris, which killed 17 people and left France’s capital in shock.
France’s most wanted terror suspect, Hayat Boumeddiene, crossed into Syria from Turkey just as her now-dead partner, Amedy Coulibaly, stormed a kosher supermarket the day after Chérif and Saïd Kouachi carried out their massacre of staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Her Jan. 8 escape to Syria suggests her travel movements were planned in advance of the terrorist attacks, intelligence sources told The Daily Beast.
French intelligence has established that Boumeddiene flew from Madrid to Istanbul on Jan. 2, along with a publicly unidentified male companion. French authorities had initially—and mistakenly—thought she was at the supermarket siege with Coulibaly. Like many militants making their way to Syria, she took the precaution of buying a return ticket, presumably in the hope of avoiding being flagged by airport security.
The 26-year-old likely holds the key to figuring out how Coulibaly and the brothers Kouachi, who said they were working for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), coordinated their carnage. In a video released Sunday on a Dailymotion account called Baqya (a reference to ISIS), Coulibaly pledged allegiance to ISIS, and confirmed his ties to the Kouachi brothers. In the seven-minute, pre-attack video titled “Soldier of the Caliphate,” the supermarket shooter justifies his coming actions.
“What we are doing, avenging the Prophet, is completely legitimate, deserved and timely,” he said. “You attacked the caliphate, the Islamic State, [so] you are being attacked. You cannot attack and [expect] nothing in return.”
The video was first identified by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington-based nonprofit that monitors online jihadi postings. In the video, Coulibaly is shown sitting in front of an ISIS banner with an automatic rifle beside him.
He claims he gave the Kouachi brothers money and helped them prepare for their attack and that their actions were all coordinated to maximize impact. MEMRI researchers say the footage was apparently filmed shortly before the attack and in several different locations. One segment may have been filmed after he shot allegedly a policewoman and before he stormed the supermarket.
“The brothers in our team split into two,” he says, wearing a white T-shirt and a camouflaged ballistic vest. “They carried out the Charlie Hebdo (attack), and I have been out attacking the police a bit. … So some of this was done together and some of it alone, in order to have a greater impact. I helped (one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers) in his project, by giving him a few thousand euros to buy the rest of what he needed.”
Once inside Turkey, Boumeddiene flew from Istanbul to the southern Turkish border town of Şanlıurfa and then traveled by car to the village of Akçakale before entering territory controlled by the self-styled Islamic State in northern Syria, Turkish intelligence sources told The Daily Beast. She crossed the border shortly after or around the time Coulibaly was killed in the kosher supermarket standoff with police, they say. French police say Coulibaly killed four Jewish shoppers at the supermarket as he entered.
The fact that Turkish intelligence tracked Boumeddiene—she was flagged during routine screening of passengers by Turkey’s Risk Assessment Center, intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity—adds to the many questions already raised about information sharing between Western security agencies. Better information sharing might have helped French authorities prevent last week’s terror attacks.
The Kouachis’ trips to Yemen from 2009 to 2011 were noted by U.S. intelligence agencies, but were apparently unknown to their French counterparts. The brothers were on both U.S. and British no-fly lists and remained on them even after French intelligence decided in 2013 that the Kouachis no longer presented a threat. They were thought to be more interested in robbery and selling counterfeit goods.
At Istanbul airport before leaving to attend today’s rallies in Paris, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) had speedily alerted their French counterparts to Boumeddiene’s entry into Turkey on Jan. 2 .
“The crosschecking process for information [between France and Turkey] is continuing,” he said. “We always cooperate.”
But he hinted that Turkish intelligence might not have identified her completely when she was in Istanbul, saying full identification can be “very difficult.”
“Turkey is a country to which millions of tourists come,” he said. “Prevention becomes very hard when there is no advance warning beforehand.”
For some critics of French intelligence, lack of advance warning remains the major fumble in the run-up to the last week’s attacks. All the participants in the assaults were hiding in plain sight, associated with each other and were tied to major convicted jihadi figures, including Djamel Beghal, a lieutenant of radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, who was sentenced last week to life in prison by a New York court.
Beghal was involved in the recruitment of Chérif Kouachi for the so-called Buttes Chaumont terror network, sometimes also known as the Nineteenth Arrondissement group, according to French officials. They served time together in a French prison. And according to Le Monde, Coulibaly and Boumeddiene visited Beghal in 2010 in Cantal, in southern France, where he was under house arrest. Boumeddiene and Chérif’s wife, Izzana Hamyd, were in frequent phone contact. Le Parisien has reported phone records that show the two women had spoken more than 500 times last year.
There was nothing unusual in the route Boumeddiene took inside Turkey. Western fighters and jihadi brides seeking to join the self-styled Islamic State have been taking exactly the same route for months, but it isn’t something that can’t be done on the spur of the moment. The people smugglers working on behalf of the Islamic State are cautious, taking their time to assess what surveillance is being mounted and to ensure that the border crossing is safe.
The fact she decided to make for territory controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and not for land under the sway of rival group Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, raises questions about who exactly directed the terror spree in Paris. Were the ultimate architects of the attacks drawn from more than one jihad group? Were leaders of both al Qaeda and ISIS aware of what was coming?
The Kouachi brothers told reporters and survivors of their attacks that they were working for the al Qaeda branch in Yemen. And on Friday a senior member of AQAP, Harith al-Nadhari, confirmed his group’s responsibility for the actions of the Kouachi brothers in an audio recording published online.
“Some French were not polite with the prophets and that was the reason why a few of the believers, who loved Allah and his prophet and loved martyrdom, went to them to teach them how to behave and how to be polite with the prophets and to teach them that the freedom of expression has limits and boundaries,” he said in the recording.
Last summer, U.S. security officials warned that AQAP and members of a network of al Qaeda veterans within al-Nusra called Khorasan—including a Frenchman named David Drugeon—appeared to be teaming up and were planning terror attacks in the West. French intelligence believes Drugeon is the planner of the 2012 attack on French soldiers and Jewish targets in the southern French city of Toulouse by French-born Mohammed Merah.
How ISIS and AQAP blended different elements to what increasingly looks like a larger coordinated plot will be a key question French and Western intelligence agencies will be scrambling to answer. Last winter al Qaeda severed ties with ISIS in a bitter falling out and since then the two groups have been in sharp competition, with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi eager to assume overall leadership of the global jihad movement.
The ISIS boss has poached the loyalty of more than a dozen jihadi groups and has exhorted AQAP to switch allegiance to him. That hasn’t happened yet despite some senior figures within AQAP expressing sympathy for al-Baghdadi.
In November, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen rebuked ISIS publicly over al-Baghdadi’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate. But in the statement delivered by one of AQAP’s top clerics, Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari, there was also a message of solidarity when it comes to the West’s airstrikes on the Islamic State and the hope of future unity between jihadi groups.
“Their blood is our blood, and their wounds are in our hearts, and supporting them is a duty upon us. Once we find a way to afflict America, we will follow it, Allah permitting,” al-Nadhari said in his statement. Since then the Khorasan network has been working hard to bridge divisions between ISIS and al Qaeda, The Daily Beast has reported.
And what better way to do that, as far as ferocious jihadi ideologues are concerned, than to assist each other in a hit on the West?