Extremism Ties Are Long and Deep
The emerging web of extremism behind this week's horrifying coordinated attacks targeting police, journalists and Jews in Paris that left 17 innocent people and three Salafist terrorists dead extends internationally. Among the extremist connections to terrorist brothers Cheriff, 32 and Said Kouachi, 34 are fellow radical French Algerians as well as those in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The brothers murdered twelve in an attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charles Hebdo on Wednesday. That was followed by five other killings by a compatriot Amedy Coulibaly, 32 in the days that followed. In the wake of the attacks and a report of the activation of sleeper terror cells, France has raised its terror alert level, while the United States issued both a worldwide travel alert and a bulletin to law enforcement. Unlike more recent attacks in the West that have involved inspired, but untrained loners, the Paris attacks involved more lethal weaponry, as well as greater coordination and training by the perpetrators.
It is reported that both brothers, who were reportedly under surveillance until last year, traveled to Yemen. Said may have briefly lived with convicted attempted AQAP underwear bomber Umar Abdulmultallab in 2009. Both Kouachi brothers are believed to have traveled to Yemen in 2011, where it is further alleged that Said received training and possibly even met with radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. While fleeing the scene of the deadly Charlie Hebdo massacre the Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said reportedly stated, "If media asks you tell them it's al-Qaeda in Yemen." Later on Friday, Cherif Kouachi while under siege at print shop in Dammartin-en-Goele said in an interview later broadcast on BFMTV:
Kouachi: We are just telling you we are the defenders of the prophet and that I Chérif Kouachi have been sent by Al Qaida of Yemen and that I went over there and that Anwar Al Awaki financed me.
Journalist: And that was how long ago, approximately?
Kouachi: Er.. it was a while ago, before he was killed.
Compatriot in Hate
Interestingly, that same afternoon fellow terrorist Amedy Coulibaly allegedly called a journalist during his hostage siege at a Parisian kosher market as he sought the release of the cornered brothers. He stated that while "we synchronized to do the operations," he was not in current contact with the brothers and did not have extensive operational collaboration with them:"[W]e just decided at the start, so they did Charlie Hebdo and I took care of police officers." While the Kouachi brothers were on the run Coulibaly murdered an unarmed female police officer near an area Jewish school. On Friday, Coulibaly killed four at the grocery before he himself was killed by French authorities. In a near simultaneous assault by police the Kouachi brothers were also killed.
Coulibaly's decade old ties to the Kouachis extend to their mutual involvement in Buttes Charmont, an organization that funneled foreign fighters to Iraq to combat Americans. Most recently, French authorities stated that there were more than 500 phone calls last year between Cherif Kouachi's wife and Couibably's girlfriend, Hayat Boumediene, now believed to be in Turkey or Syria.
Djamel Beghal: Center of a Web
Coulibaly was convicted of plotting with a notorious French al Qaeda extremist, Djamel Beghal to free an Alegerian GIA terrorist involved in a 1995 Orsay train bombing that killed eight. The GIA was a radical Islamic terror group involved in a brutal civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. Beghal, now under house arrest reportedly recruited convicted attempted airline shoebomber Richard Reid and 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. Beghal was convicted of conspiring to bomb the American embassy in Paris after his arrest in July 2001. While in prison Beghal also befriended Cheriff Kouachi. Beghal, who was key to organizing al Qaeda's European operations, was a close associate to one of Britain's most notorious extremists, hook handed cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. Al-Masri, sentenced to life in prison in federal district court in New York on Friday on terrorism related charges, recruited extremists out of the once radical Finsbury Park Mosque in London. Beghal was also reportedly very close to radical Jordanian Abu Qatada, a religious advisor to al Qaeda who lived in the United Kingdom.
ISIS Joyful, But Relevant?
Confusingly, Coulibably said he was working not on behalf of AQAP, but its Salafist terror rival the Islamic State (ISIS), which has 17,000 fighters in the Syria-Iraq theater, including 1000 or more from France. France has both the largest European contingent of foreign fighters with ISIS, but also the largest Muslim population on the continent with over five million residents. While both ISIS and AQAP have origins with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, and similar hatreds, they evolved into bloody contemporary rivals. As word of the Charlie Hedbo terror murders spread, Jihadists around the world and supporters of both groups quickly celebrated the "joyous" "heroic" attack and attempted to take credit. "Watch how a brother kills a French policeman" gloated one widely circulated Internet statement referring to a video of the killing. The injured community policeman referenced online while unsuccessfully pleading for his life, was Ahmed Merabet, a 40 year old father whose immigrant Muslim family, like those of his killers came from North Africa.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was already an insurgent group when it aligned with al Qaeda in 2004 under the stewardship of long time terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Before his death in a June 2006 American bombing raid, Zarqawi's AQI engineered waves of violence against Shi'a Iraqi civilians and their shrines as well as a coordinated attack on American branded hotels in his native Jordan, including one hosting a wedding, in November 2005 that left 60 dead. A reinvigorated AQI, now known as ISIS, controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria under the brutal leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He enforces a lethal version of Sharia law, and executes, sometimes by beheadings, religious minorities, accused sinners, captured Syrian soldiers and western journalists. After a brief merger in 2013 with al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Lebanon, ISIS cut ties with al Qaeda and engaged in bloody conflicts with them.
The Martyr Factory: Anwar Al Awlaki and AQAP
Anwar al Awlaki the Islamist propagandist credited with financing this week's Charlie Hebdo attack, was an influential English speaking radical killed over three years ago during an America drone strike on September 30, 2011. At his death, Awlaki worked on recruiting and external affairs for AQAP and was killed with another American propagandist Samir Khan, 24, editor of the Jihadist Inspire magazine. AQAP formed in January 2009 when al Qaeda groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged. Because of his command of English, his excellent rhetorical skills and his ubiquity online, Al Awlaki was arguably the most important inspirational figure to a very small, but growing new breed of Internet savvy disaffected young adults in the West. Al Awalki spoke of his shift to radicalism:
I, for one, was born in the U.S. I lived in the U.S. for 21 years. America was my home. I was a preacher of Islam involved in nonviolent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.
In addition to al Awlaki's earlier uncontroversial earlier lectures on religion, an array of his radical English language jihadist exhortations have been available online including on YouTube videos, on the now defunct websites anwar-awlaki.com and Revolution Muslim, the Internet essay compilation Jihad Recollections, the Internet magazine Inspire and in essays like the 2009 "44 Ways to Support Jihad" and "May Our Souls Be Sacrificed for You." Former National Counter Terrorism Center director Michael Leiter also told Congress during in 2011 hearings that AQAP was the biggest threat and that its violence embracing Inspire magazine "is spiffy." He contended "It's got great graphics and in some sense we think probably speaks to individuals who are like to be radicalized."
Al Awlaki has been tied to over fifteen international terrorist plots including the:
- • April 2010 suicide bombing attempt on the life of UK Ambassador to Yemen Timothy Torlot;
- • May 2010 attempted car bombing of New York's Times Square by Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad;
- • May 2010 near fatal stabbing of British MP Stephen Timms by London University student, Roshonara Choudry, 21;
- • December 2009 attempted plane "underwear" bombing over Detroit by Umar Abdulmutallab;
- • November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting by Nidal Hassan that left 13 dead and 30 injured;
- • May 2007 Fort Dix, New Jersey plot to kill American soldiers;
- • August 2006 plot to bomb commercial airliners over the Atlantic;
- • June 2006 "Toronto 18" plot against the Canadian Prime Minister and Parliament;
- • July 2005 The London Public Transit Attack, that left 52 civilians dead
Several years ago London Daily Telegraph stated, "Awlaki's lectures have been found in possession of almost every radical Islamist who has executed, or attempted to execute, attacks on Western targets." His lectures and sermons were in book shops where two sets of London subway plotters met.
While born in America, he departed the country for Yemen at age 7, and stayed there until his return to pursue undergraduate and masters studies at state colleges in Colorado and California. He held positions at various mosques in Denver, San Diego, and Falls Church, Virginia. In California, he was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes and pled guilty to related charges in 1996 and 1997. Al-Awlaki recorded non-extremist lectures about the faith that were sold on CDs at religious centers and bookstores in the United States and Britain.
Al-Awlaki's contacts, however, included various terrorists. Among those are at least two of the 9/11 hijackers who crashed a 757 into the Pentagon on September 11 killing 184 people. Saudi Arabians Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi were followers of al-Awlaki in both California, where they took flying lessons, and Virginia prior to 9/11. After 9/11, he garnered the attention of the media as a moderate teacher of faith despite his comments that 9/11 was an Israeli conspiracy. In October 2001, he told the Washington Times, "We're totally against what the terrorists had done. We want to bring those who had done this to justice. But we're also against the killing of civilians in Afghanistan." The following month he told PBS, "But we also cherish a lot of the values that are in America. Freedom is one of them; the opportunity is another. And that's why there is more appreciation among the American Muslims compared to the Muslims in other parts of the world." In 2002, Al Awlaki departed the United States for Britain after American authorities stepped up their efforts against him. In 2004, he left Britain to return to Yemen. While in Yemen, with the consent of the United States, he was incarcerated for a year and a half. It was after that period that he became publicly radicalized and identified with Al Qaeda.
Even though al-Awlaki was under the scrutiny of authorities, he led prayers at a function at the Capitol, was an invitee to a Pentagon luncheon and appeared on National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System, and in the Washington Post. Whatever moderation he expressed earlier on, either truthfully or as a ruse, al Awlaki by the end of the decade devolved into Al Qaeda's most effective recruiter of disaffected Westerners. He may have also met Nidal Hassan while working at the Dar al Hijrah Mosque in Virginia and in any event had email communications with him in the time leading up to his deadly rampage. After the attack Awlaki said:
Nidal Hasan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people. Any decent Muslim cannot live, understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a U.S. soldier. The U.S. is leading the war against terrorism, which in reality is a war against Islam.
FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism, Mark F. Giuliano, noted:
AQAP leaders such as Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan have published articles on the Internet detailing their intent to strike the United States. Several key AQAP figures were born or educated in the United States and understand our culture, our limitations, our security protocols, and our vulnerabilities. They use this understanding to develop and refine new tactics and techniques to defeat our security measures and attack us. AQAP also understands and expertly exploits social media to share their knowledge with others of similar mindsets.
Al Qaeda's new slick online English magazine, Inspire debuted in the summer of 2010. Its March 2013 edition featured a two page hit list that included Stephane Charbonnier, from the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo. There have been thirteen editions, the latest published last month, and a manual that include such content as an interview with Anwar al-Awlaki and an article entitled "How to make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," as well as other articles encouraging readers to "mow down" people with cars and how to destroy buildings. The bomb making instructions were allegedly hacked recently by British spies, who replaced it with a recipe for cupcakes. Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev had a copy of Inspire Magazine that showed how to make a pressure cooker bomb like the one used in the 2013 attack that left three dead and 250 injured.
Interestingly, Inspire's lone wolf "do it yourself" orientation was also a cause of concern for Osama bin Laden, who preferred more coordinated and disciplined attacks carried out by trained operatives. In correspondence recovered from his hideout, and summarized in a West Point publication bin Laden expressed concern about the lack of oversight with the magazine regarding both taste and tactics in the media materials of Al Qaeda affiliates:
He warned of its "dangerous consequences," presumably due to its tasteless content and no doubt to the poor planning of the operations it promotes....In comparison to regional jihadi groups, Bin Ladin comes across as an outmoded jihadi. In contrast to their indiscriminate jihad, he was more interested in carefully planned operations. In view of the recent marketing of "lone wolf" operations as "New Age" jihad, Bin Ladin instead urged methodical planning of suicide operations.
Threats Range From Untrained Loners to Trained Cells
While AQAP and ISIS are the most commonly mentioned threats to Americans it should be noted that other armed Salafist extremists have also trained Americans in violence. Al Qaeda East Africa affiliate al Shabaab, has the distinction of dispatching the first modern American suicide bomber Shirwa Ahemd in 2009 in East Africa. Whether it be returning fighters from Yemen, Syria, or Africa, the Paris attacks illustrate that the less competent, but more common lone wolves have more sophisticated allies that can operate as trained duos, autonomous cells, or possibly even commanded ones.