Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's media organ, al-Malahem, released a video featuring Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi on Jan. 14 in which the group claimed credit for the Jan. 7 attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Al-Ansi claimed that al Qaeda core leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the attack, and that it was coordinated by Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Ansi also said, "We clarify to the Ummah that the one who chose the target, laid the plan and financed the op is the leadership of this organization."
While it does appear that the eldest of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, Said Kouachi, did travel to Yemen before al-Awlaki's death and therefore could have met with the cleric, Kouachi's trip to Yemen was very brief and his time with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was even shorter; some reports suggest he spent as few as three days receiving arms training. Kouachi therefore was not some sort of highly trained sleeper operative dispatched to France to await activation orders to launch a pre-planned attack. Indeed, the Kouachi brothers' web activity was far too high-profile and undisciplined for such an operation; sleeper operatives are supposed to keep a low profile rather than post pictures of themselves shooting AK-47s.
There are several other facts regarding the Charlie Hebdo attack that do not jibe with al-Ansi's claim. First, al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in September 2011. It is unlikely that the Kouachi brothers would have waited so long to organize and attempt such a simple attack if it indeed had been planned in 2011. The attack certainly required some preparation, and those planning it had to follow the terrorist attack cycle, but it was a relatively direct assault that was far simpler to conduct than the 9/11 attacks. It simply did not require years to plan.
Additionally, the latest al-Ansi video is starkly different from those released in the wake of AQAP's failed December 2009 underwear bombing attack. In the case of the 2009 attack, al-Malahem media released video footage of the failed bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, training with small arms at an al Qaeda training camp and later meeting with al-Awlaki and AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi. But the most recent al-Ansi video contained no such video footage of Kouachi.
Furthermore, according to a report by Haaretz, it now appears that the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attack as well as those used by the Kouachi brothers' friend, Amedy Coulibaly, in his murder of a French policewoman and the hostage situation at a Paris kosher deli were obtained by Coulibaly through his connections from his days as a criminal. According to the Haaretz report, a Belgian arms dealer has turned himself in to authorities and has confessed to selling the weapons to Coulibaly. This meshes with a claim Coulibaly made in a video released after his death, in which Coulibaly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and said he obtained the arms used in the attacks. It also appears that Coulibaly acquired the funds to purchase the arms by taking out a bank loan rather than from funds sent to the group by either the Islamic State or AQAP. It is also significant that Coulibaly's video was a homemade production and not a more professional video made by one of the Islamic State's media outlets.
Claiming an attack it did not conduct would not be new for AQAP.
Claiming an attack it did not conduct would not be new for AQAP. The latest edition of Inspire Magazine glorified and tried to assume credit for three grassroots terrorist operatives who acted on behalf of the Islamic State in October 2014. It is possible that AQAP has archival footage of Kouachi that will be released by al-Malahem at a later date, but until then, the known facts surrounding the Paris attacks indicate that they were launched by a grassroots cell that was inspired by AQAP and the Islamic State but was not acting on direct orders from either organization. The cell appears to be a textbook case of leaderless resistance, in which grassroots operatives are provided targets and inspired by a terrorist group but do not have direct operational ties to the organization. Charlie Hebdo was listed as a target in the first and 10th issues of Inspire Magazine.
Jihadist ideologues such as Abu Musab al-Suri have promoted the concept of leaderless resistance since 2004. AQAP began to promote it in 2009 and the Islamic State jumped on the bandwagon in September 2014. Such operations continue to pose the most likely threat to the West, although they also tend to be far more modest and less spectacular than attacks conducted by trained terrorist operatives dispatched by a terrorist group. Nevertheless, leaderless resistance operations can and do kill people, and as seen in Paris even simple attacks can generate a great deal of attention in the global media — enough that groups such as AQAP and the Islamic State want to take credit for them.