For more than five years, U.S. intelligence agencies, counterterrorism operators, and the military have been intensely focused on trying to stop al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen branch of the global terrorist network, from sneaking hard-to-detect bombs onto airplanes and slaughtering hundreds of people.
What they got last week was Paris—a completely different kind of attack.
In claiming credit for last week’s decidedly lower-tech shooting spree at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, AQAP seems to have flipped its playbook, leading to inevitable questions about whether U.S. officials misjudged the terror group’s capabilities or were too focused on the wrong threat: bombs instead of bullets.
All this, despite a slick AQAP magazine that called specifically for shooters—and for Charlie Hebdo to be put in the crosshairs.
“In some quarters there’s skepticism that [the Paris attack] was AQAP because analysts expected that AQAP would launch an attack against aviation, rather than this kind of tactic,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an experienced terrorism analyst and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “We get into trouble when we think we know a clandestine foe better than we actually do.”
In interviews with half a dozen current and former U.S. officials with frontline experience fighting al Qaeda, a clearer picture is emerging about the years leading up to the rampage in Paris. While intelligence and security agencies never ruled out the possibility that the terror group could employ mass shootings as a way to “create havoc in the West,” as one former top counterterrorism official put it, the U.S. security bureaucracy was more focused on AQAP’s repeated attempts to launch more spectacular attacks against civilian aviation, particularly after the group tried to blow up a commercial airliner over Detroit in 2009.
Now, as investigators scrutinize the more than three years that the Paris shooters spent between a visit to Yemen in 2011 and last week’s attack, they’re looking for clues that might have alerted Western security services to the plot but apparently went undetected. Current and former officials insisted that they had not taken their eyes off al Qaeda in Yemen in the time before the Charlie Hebdo attack. “The U.S. intelligence community has been beating the drum about the threat from AQAP for years,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told The Daily Beast.
Of all of Al Qaeda’s regional groups, AQAP is the one that American intelligence and homeland security officials have worried about the most. A domestic attack by AQAP was “top of the list. Absolutely top of the list” of concerns for U.S. intelligence, said Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA. Morell left the agency in 2013, but he said that the CIA’s focus on AQAP hasn’t abated.
In recent months, senior U.S. intelligence officials have said they’re intent on locating AQAP’s chief bombmaker, Ibrahim Al Asiri. He has survived American drone strikes and is believed to be teaching fellow terrorists how to build explosive devices without metal parts that can evade airport security systems. The anxieties about Asiri reached a fever pitch last fall when U.S. intelligence concluded that an Al Qaeda unit in Syria, known as the Khorasan Group, was close to launching an airliner attack. President Obama ordered airstrikes against the group’s bases in Syria to knock the plot off course, according to senior administration officials.
“Our biggest concern has continued to be the non-metallic bomb on airplanes,” another former U.S. official told The Daily Beast, and intelligence agencies were focused on “anything we could do to get intelligence on the bomb-making, and on Ibrahim al Asiri, in addition to anything that he could be sharing with the Khorasan Group.”
The focus on AQAP’s bomb-making menace began in August 2009, when al Asiri designed an explosive package that was inserted into his younger brother’s rectum. The brother then met face-to-face with Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s then-deputy interior minister, and blew himself up. The attack failed, killing the younger al Asiri, but American officials were alarmed.
“After the attempted assassination, there was a realization that these guys were good. They had a good engineer and bombmaker,” said Andrew Liepman, who retired in August 2012 as the second-in-command of the National Counterterrorism Center and worked more than 30 years at the CIA.
AQAP didn’t wait long to put al Asiri’s handiwork to use again. On Christmas Day, 2009, it sent a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aboard a commercial airliner bound for Detroit with an improvised bomb sewn into his underwear. The bomb failed to detonate and succeeded only in wounding Abdulmutallab, but it made clear that AQAP had the intention, and nearly the capability, to attack inside the United States.
“The benchmark for how we viewed AQAP was established in late 2009,” after the bin Nayef and Christmas Day plots, said Liepman, who’s now a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp.
The terror group didn’t relent. Less than a year later, AQAP tried twice to get bombs hidden inside printer cartridges onto cargo airplanes. The group even claimed responsibility for the downing of a UPS jet in September 2010, though officially that crash was attributed to a fire in the plane’s cargo hold causd by lithium batteries, and not a deliberate act.
Then in 2012, the U.S. foiled another plot by AQAP to detonate an underwear bomb, this one using a more sophisticated design. Not long before the plot was revealed by the Associated Press, CIA Director John Brennan gave a speech in New York in which he singled out AQAP as “the most active operational franchise,” with some 1,000 members in Yemen and ties to the terrorist network’s central operations base in the tribal regions of Pakistan. “We are very concerned about AQAP,” Brennan said, calling the outfit “very, very dangerous.”
Behind the scenes, however, a debate over just how big a threat al Qaeda still posed was dividing intelligence officials into rival factions. As The Daily Beast previously reported, a draft National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus document crafted by all the spy agencies, planned to say that Al Qaeda no longer posed a direct threat to the United States. Some senior U.S. officials, including Gen. Michael Flynn, then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, bucked against that assessment and successfully fought to have it struck from the document.
Former U.S. officials said this week that while there was a debate over whether al Qaeda’s central operations in the tribal regions of Pakistan still posed a direct threat to the American homeland, there was never a question about whether AQAP was still a danger.
Still, the rift over how to assess al Qaeda central reflected concerns within some quarters of the intelligence community that the White House in particular was trying to minimize the overall threat from Al Qaeda. And those concerns have risen up again in the wake of the Paris shootings.
One prominent terrorism analyst said there’s a “reflexive tendency” among many in the intelligence community and political elite to downplay Al Qaeda’s resiliency and its reach.
“There’s this immediate urge to say something isn’t Al Qaeda when there’s evidence that it is,” said Thomas Joscelyn, the editor of the influential Long War Journal, which chronicles the workings of AQAP and U.S. drone strikes against the group. Joscelyn pointed out, for example, that President Obama initially described Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, as an “isolated extremist” even though he had already told authorities that he was sent by al Qaeda in Yemen.
The Kaouachi brothers also claimed to be working with AQAP. And while U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that they are confident at least one of the brothers met in Yemen in 2011 with AQAP recruiter Anwar Awlaki, those officials still aren’t sure that the group planned and directed the Charlie Hebdo shooting, despite its public claims.
In that hesitation to definitively pin the Paris attacks on the Yemeni terror group, some terrorism analysts see a blind spot. The intelligence community primarily viewed AQAP as a collection of bombers. Attacks like Paris seemed both far-fetched—and maybe unstoppable.
One former official, for example, that the Paris attack looked “exactly” like the kind of attack that analysts worried AQAP might inspire or direct others to carry out. But it was also the kind of plot that U.S. security agencies would “have little opportunity to stop,” because it’s much simpler to buy guns than get a bomb onto an airplane. The threat of mass shootings was like a nagging worry, whereas bomb plots were cause for immediate panic.
U.S. officials didn’t have to look far to see what AQAP had in mind. Its English language magazine called Inspire has for years been encouraging readers to launch small-scale attacks, including shootings, against Western targets deemed offensive to Islam. The editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were on the Inspire hit list.
Two former senior counterterrorism officials described some of the Inspire ideas as “wacky”—such as a ramming cars into crowds. But they also said that the magazine was taken seriously by U.S. analysts. What’s more, they feared that a lone terrorist could be motivated by the magazine to launch a small-scale attack, like a shooting, and that this would be something U.S. security agencies were essentially powerless to stop.
The idea that AQAP might turn to shooting attacks also had a precedent: the November 2008 attacks by gunman in India’s capital that killed 164 people. “Mumbai absolutely got our attention,” said Liepman, the former No. 2 at the National Counterterrorism Center. “It’s sensible and responsible to model your threat against what they’d done already,” and for AQAP, that was using hard-to-detect bombs.
The big lesson of the Paris attacks may be that focusing on a terrorist’s weapon is less important than the terrorist himself.
“It’s more the profile of a person they’re looking for as opposed to the method of attack,” the U.S. counterterrorism official told The Daily Beast. Who has the ability to travel freely between the Middle East and Western countries? Who can lay low and be depended upon to patiently carry out the plan? Who can avoid detection?
It’s still not clear why the Kouachi brothers, who seem to fit that profile, didn’t set off alarms for U.S. or French counterterrorism officials. Investigators are zeroing in on the more than three years that passed between the meeting with Awlaki and the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and are looking for any indications that the brothers, and their shooting plot, should have been scrutinized more closely.
The bulk of those questions will fall to French officials. The Kaouachi brothers were well known to French security authorities for their terrorist activities. The investigation into why the French failed to apprehend the suspects is exposing longstanding grievances among U.S. officials over who bears the weight of counterterrorism operations.
For years, Pentagon officials have publicly and privately griped that the military campaign against terrorist groups in the Middle East has fallen largely to them. When officials ask for more help from NATO allies, the response is often that members cannot afford to spend more on defense, leaving the U.S. to lead.
The war against AQAP was no different. The majority of drone and strikes against the group in Yemen were conducted by the U.S. military, with more assistance coming from Yemeni intelligence officials than from Europe.
“It is always on us. We have been a leader on counterterrorism in the region. Those are just the facts,” one defense official told The Daily Beast.
Almost immediately after the attack on Charlie Hebdo offices, U.S. officials adamantly defended their ongoing campaign against AQAP, stressing the war against ISIS, which has consumed far more public attention, had not derailed them.
But privately, they concede there were other distractions. As the drone strike campaign continued, AQAP adapted, making it harder to spot targets. In addition, there were simply fewer targets still around as previous strikes took out so many.
And at times, the U.S. government itself decided to reduce the strikes it conducted in Yemen, particularly as concerns rose over civilian casualties. By 2014, when at least one of the Kouachi brothers received militant training in Yemen, U.S. strikes dropped by nearly half from their 2012 peak, according to statistics compiled by the Long War Journal.
Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday that the number of strikes is not the only measure of the US commitment to the war on AQAP. “I think we have had a pretty strong record,” Kirby said. And though there are fewer drone strikes, they’re also more lethal. In 2014, 138 militants died, compared to 99 the year before, according to the Long War Journal.
One senior U.S. official credited the drone campaign with reducing the overall threat of terror attacks on American soil. It’s not a coincidence, this official said, that after the killing of Awlaki and a concerted effort to kill other AQAP operational leaders, there have been fewer attempts by the group to put bombs on airplanes, and none documented since 2012. And stopping those attacks has always been the United States’ top concern.
—with additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef