The World

ISIS and al-Qaida Are Enemies. How Can They ​Both Have Been Involved in the Paris Attacks?

A French police officer guards a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, on Jan. 10, 2015.

Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

In a video that surfaced over the weekend, Amedy Coulibaly, the now-dead suspect in the attack on a kosher market in Paris last Friday, declared his allegiance to “the Caliph of the Muslims, [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” and also claimed to be “with the team who did Charlie Hebdo.”

Those two claims seem somewhat contradictory.Before he was killed on Friday, Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, claimed to have been “financed by Imam Anwar al-Awlaki,” the late U.S.-born cleric and propagandist for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Kouachi is believed to have spent time training with the group.

Both ISIS and AQAP have praised the attacks, but they are definitely not on the same team. Al-Qaida and its affiliates have been at odds with ISIS since early last year and have fought against each other on the battlefields of Syria. ISIS leader al-Baghdadi declaring himself caliph, as referenced by Coulibaly, was widely seen as a direct challenge to al-Qaida honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership of the global jihadist movement. In November, AQAP issued a statement directly rebuking ISIS’s caliphate claim. There have been some reports that ISIS is patching things up with al-Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, but worldwide, the two groups are still generally seen as being in direct competition.

So the fact that adherents of both groups seemed to be working together in Paris last week is notable. As Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute notes, in the days following the attack, the big question was whether ISIS or al-Qaida was involved. “The answer likely seems to be ‘neither of them’ and ‘both,’” he writes. Watts breaks terrorist attacks into three types: “directed” attacks, like 9/11 or AQAP’s bombing plots, fully orchestrated by groups like al-Qaida; “inspired” attacks, like the lone wolf actions recently seen in Canada and Australia; and an intermediate category he calls “networked” attacks, in which individuals who have spent time with groups like al-Qaida and ISIS organize their own cells with minimal supervision from the larger organizations. The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were likely operating along these lines.

While ISIS and al-Qaida, as centralized organizations, may be sworn enemies, things may be more fluid for their adherents around the world, who share a common ideology and common goals. As the counterterrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer wrote on Twitter today, the dual claims in Paris suggest that “some jihadis relate to IS/AQ like football teams. You can support different clubs and still watch game together.” Certainly, supporters of the two groups online seem to be reacting to the events in Paris with common enthusiasm.

It might seem somewhat incoherent that these two groups are fighting against each other in the Middle East while their adherents work together in the west. But frankly, they’re not the only ones who’ve been forced into uncomfortable political contortions by the multidimensional civil war in Syria.