Exclusive to The Middle East Online . . .
By Ed Blanche
There has been much speculation about whether Al Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) was behind the recent bloodbath in France, triggered by the slaughter of the 12 journalists at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for alleged blasphemy against Allah.
The two Muslim brothers who gunned down the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors claimed they were trained by Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based group, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, there is no claim, so far anyway, that AQAP, which the Americans deem to be the most dangerous of the jihadist branches spawned by the late Osama bin Laden, masterminded the carnage.
Amedy Coulibaly, the third gunman who carried out his own one-man campaign against the French police at the same time Said and Cherif Kouachi were on their killing spree, told reporters before he was shot to death in a hail of police gunfire in a kosher grocery in suburban Paris where he was holding hostages, that he was a follower of IS and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This puzzles counter-terrorist analysts, because Al Qaeda and IS, the barbarous offspring of Bin Laden’s creation, are fighting each other for domination of the rebel forces in the Syrian civil war.
Their leaders – Ayman al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian jihadist who took over Al Qaeda after Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan by US Special Forces on 2 May 2011, and Baghdadi, the ruthless Iraqi upstart who regenerated Al Qaeda’s battered Iraqi organisation and forged it into the breakaway killing machine that now controls a swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria, the size of Belgium, that he has proclaimed the new Islamic caliphate – are currently locked in a ferocious war of words on social media and in official communiques.
If operatives of these two organisations, competing for international recognition as leaders of the global jihad, have colluded to mount simultaneous attacks in France it marks an ominous development, indicating that they are willing to cooperate against Western countries – particularly those engaged in combatting jihadists in the Middle East, like France – even while they kill each other in Syria for supremacy of the battlefield.
That confounds the conclusions of Western intelligence services, which veteran Middle East analyst Christopher Dickey of Newsweek says “categorise terrorists in terms of their supposed organisations, and draw erroneous or irrelevant conclusions based on those categories.”
One of those shibboleths holds that IS is too busy fighting in Iraq and Syria, particularly against Iranian-linked organisations like Hizbullah and Tehran’s “special groups” of hardline Iraqi Shiites, to consolidate the jihadist proto-state, to be able to mount terrorist attacks in the West.
There is credible information that the Kouachi brothers spent time in Yemen with AQAP, which is the only Al Qaeda wing that has sought to attack the United States by planting bombs aboard US aircraft that evaded electronic defences. These attempts failed because of technical problems or because of timely intelligence, usually from Saudi Arabia.
AQAP has not formally acknowledged planning or directing the Charlie Hebdo massacre, although it has called on French Muslims to attack Charlie Hebdo for its repeated satirical assaults on radical Islam.
But it is widely believed that Al Qaeda, which has been steadily worn down by remorseless US attacks, especially under the lackluster leadership of Zawahiri, is struggling to reassert itself after al-Baghdadi’s jihadist juggernaut in Iraq that was unleashed in June 2014.
Al-Baghdadi’s proclamation of a new caliphate, a highly symbolic evocation of the glory days of Islam under the Baghdad-based Abbasids between 750 AD and 1258 when the city was sacked by the Mongols, left Al Qaeda marginalised and seemingly incapable of mounting major operations any more.
“The Al Qaeda core has been weakened to the point of military irrelevance, and its ideological clout has dwindled substantially,” US counter-terrorism analyst Scott Stewart observed in an assessment of the jihadist split for the global security consultancy Stratfor, written days before the 7 January slaughter in Paris.
“The fact that the Islamic State’s leaders felt confident enough to defy the orders of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, publicly break away from the group and now mock him publicly is a clear reflection of the core’s organisational irrelevance to the rest of the jihadist movement…
“The Al Qaeda core’s current irrelevance is not necessarily permanent. In the past we have seen jihadist groups rebound and regain strength after experiencing substantial losses on the battlefield,” Stewart noted.
“The United States has employed the full force of its counter-terrorism tools against the Al Qaeda core for more than 13 years now, but if Washington were to reduce that pressure, and if the Al Qaeda leadership were able to find some space in which to operate, it is possible the group could begin to regain strength.”
With that in mind, there have been persistent reports, largely from the Americans, that Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan mustered a team of seasoned veteran operatives known as the “Khorasan Group” in Syria with the organization’s affiliate there, the Al-Nusra Front, supposedly to recruit Muslim fighters from the West, including white converts, operating in Syria for terrorist attacks in their home countries.
So far, there’s no indication that the killings in France were linked to the Khorasan Group, which has been targeted by US air strikes in a bid to eliminate some of Zawahiri’s most capable operatives.
But there is an intriguing link between the Kouachi brothers and long-time jihadist Aboubaker el-Hakim, a Franco-Tunisian, who was involved with them several years ago in the so-called “Butte-Chaumont network” in Paris’ 19th arrondissement, a working class district heavily populated by North African immigrant families whose marginalised and disaffected young men are flocking to Syria and Iraq.
The network recruited fighters for Al Qaeda in 2004-09 until it was broken up by the French.
El-Hakim, whose brother fought with Al Qaeda in Iraq and was killed in a July 2004 US air strike on Fallujah, served more than five years in prison along with Cherif Kouachi. El-Hakim was released in 2011, shortly after Kouachi, and went to Tunisia, where he reportedly hooked up with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In July 2013, the Tunisian government named him prime suspect in the assassination of prominent opposition politicians Chokri Belaid, shot dead on 6 February 2013, and Mohamed Brahimi, killed by the same semi-automatic 9mm pistol on 25 July 2013.
El-Hakim, who remains at large, crossed over to IS in 2014. He is “the link between the Kouachi brothers and IS,” said radical Islam expert Pierre Filiu of Paris; Sciences Po university.