Following eyewitness testimony reported Wednesday that the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo massacre claimed to be from “al-Qaida in Yemen,” a French police official tells the AP on Thursday that the suspects, French brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, are believed to be linked to a Yemeni terrorist network.
If it’s true that al-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was involved in the attack, Wednesday was quite a day for the group. In Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, a suicide bomber killed at least 37 people when he rammed a bus rigged to explode into a gathering of recruits outside a police academy. No one has yet claimed responsibility for that attack, but it fits a pattern of recent al-Qaida assaults in the country.
Most al-Qaida affiliates today function as both militia movements in local conflicts like Yemen’s and part of an international network supporting attacks abroad. And AQAP has certainly had its hands in a number of major international plots over the years. Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric and AQAP propagandist who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, communicated with and encouraged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan for months before the U.S. Army officer went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 people in 2009. Al-Awlaki was also in touch with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” before his failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day 2009. Awlaki is also thought to have come up with the idea for Inspire, al-Qaida’s English-language magazine, which aims to provide aspiring jihadists with ideas for attacks and potential targets, including, chillingly, Charlie Hebdo’s now-slain editor.
AQAP’s international goals haven’t diminished since Awlaki’s death. In 2012 the Obama administration said it had disrupted another plot by the group to blow up an airliner bound for the U.S. or another Western country with a new and improved underwear bomb. And with the operational control of al-Qaida’s global leader and Osama Bin Laden’s direct successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, diminished, AQAP is thought to be playing a much larger role in the network’s global operations. AQAP’s current leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, now serves as global al-Qaida’s “No. 2” and general manager. A former personal aide to Bin Laden known for his organizing and propaganda savvy, Wuhayshi brazenly held an open-air meeting with more than 100 fighters in Yemen last year. This was a sign of considerable confidence given that his three predecessors were all killed in drone strikes.
If AQAP was involved, even indirectly, in Wednesday’s attack, it would be the group’s biggest success outside the Middle East in quite a while. And coming at a time when international attention has shifted to al-Qaida’s hostile erstwhile allies ISIS—with that group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, directly challenging Zawahiri’s leadership of the international jihadist movement—it’s a sign that al-Qaida is still far from contained.