AQAP claims responsibility for Paris attack as French PM admits 'failings'
CAIRO / PARIS
The message "Paris is Charlie" is projected on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris January 9, 2015, in tribute to the victims following Wednesday's deadly attack at the Paris offices of weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by two masked gunmen who shouted Islamist slogans. REUTERS/Youssef BoudlalAn Al-Qaida member in Yemen has said the group directed the Charlie Hebdo attack, while French PM acknowledged "failings" in intelligence that led to a three-day spree of horror and at least 20 people dead.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula directed the attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris "as revenge for the honor" of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, a member of the group told The Associated Press on Jan. 9.
At least one of the two brothers involved in the attack travelled to Yemen in 2011 and either received training from or fought alongside the group, according to U.S. and Yemeni officials. A U.S. intelligence assessment described to the AP shows that Said Kouachi was trained in preparation to return home and carry out an attack.
If confirmed, the attack would be the first time al-Qaida's branch in Yemen has successfully carried out an operation in the West after at least two earlier attempts.
Soon after, the branch's senior cleric Sheikh Harith al-Nadhari issued a recording on the group's Twitter feed commenting on the "blessed raid on Paris." He denounced the "filthy" French and called them "the heads of infidelity who insult the prophets." He praised the "hero mujahedeen" who he said "taught them a lesson and the limits of freedom of speech."
Al-Nadhari stopped short of directly claiming responsibility for the attack, but added, "How can we not fight those who hurt our prophet, slandered our religion and fought the faithful."
Addressing the French, he said, "It better for you to stop striking Muslims so you can live in peace. But if you only wish for war, then rejoice, you will not enjoy peace as long as you wage war on God and his prophets and fight Muslims."
It was not immediately clear why al-Nadhari did not outright said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the attack. The member told the AP that the group as delaying its official declaration of responsibility for "security reasons."
'THE SNAKE'S HEAD'
"The leadership of AQAP directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully as revenge for the honor of the prophet," the al-Qaida member said. He said France was targeted "because of its obvious role in the war on Islam and oppressed nations."
He warned that "touching Muslims' sanctity and protecting those who make blasphemy have a dear price and the punishment will be severe" and that "the crimes of the Western countries, above them America, Britain and France will backfire deep in their home."
He said the group will continue the policy by al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri of "hitting the snake's head ... until the West retreats." He also cited the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's warnings of the consequences of blasphemy against Muslim sanctities.
The member spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized by the group to give his name. His same comments in Arabic was later posted on Twitter by users known to be supporters of AQAP.
Witnesses to Wednesday's assault in Paris said Said Kouachi, the elder of the two brothers who stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices, claimed allegiance to the Yemeni group during the attack. His 32-year-old brother, Cherif Kouachi, was convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 for ties to a network sending jihadis to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. The brothers were killed Friday in a gunbattle with French police.
A Yemeni security official said Said Kouachi is believed to have fought with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2011 in Abyan province.
MAIN SUSPECT HAD TRAVELED TO YEMEN
At the time, al-Qaida fighters had taken advantage of a security vacuum during an uprising that eventually ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The militants seized several towns and cities in the south of the country. Abyan province was an al-Qaida stronghold from which the group launched attacks against government forces and new offensives to seize more territory.
The second Yemeni official said Kouachi was believed to be among hundreds of foreigners deported in 2012, when the government expelled many foreign students, fearing they were there under the pretext of studying Arabic but were in fact linking up with al-Qaida.
Both officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing investigation into Kouachi's stay in Yemen.
U.S. officials believe French authorities knew Kouachi traveled to Yemen, but it's not clear whether they knew what he did there. Still, French authorities placed both Kouachi brothers close surveillance when he returned. The officials believe the brothers led a normal life for long enough that the French began to view them as less of a threat and reduced the surveillance.
A U.S. law enforcement official said both Kouachi brothers had raised enough concern to be placed on the no-fly list. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Previously, al-Qaida's Yemen branch directed the December 2009 attempt to bomb an American passenger jet over Detroit. The would-be bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who failed the detonate explosives on his body, went to Yemen to prepare for the attack and may have met with radical American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, linked to al-Qaida. Al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011.
In 2010, the group attempted to send bombs in packages to be delivered to targets in the United States, but the packages were intercepted on flights through Europe and the United Arab Emirates.
PM VALLS ACKNOWLEDGES FAILINGS
France's prime minister, on the other hand, has acknowledged "failings" in intelligence that led to a three-day spree of horror and at least 20 people dead, as criticism mounted that the attacks might have been avoided if officials had been more alert to the deadly peril posed by suspects already on their radar.
Even as authorities were still investigating the events during three days of violence, a debate brewed over who should be held accountable in the apparent lapses by law enforcement and national security officials.
Some security experts, however, noted the huge difficulties faced by authorities in preventing attacks when potential terrorists and their sympathizers number in the thousands on official watch lists.
The experts note other factors at play: Security services are drowning in data, overwhelmed by the quantity of people and emails they are expected to track, and hampered by the inability to make pre-emptive arrests in democratic countries.
The French government appeared to be steeling itself for recriminations. "There was a failing, of course," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on BFM television. "That's why we have to analyze what happened."
Criticism has focused on the failure to more closely follow the two brothers who carried out Wednesday's attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. One had been convicted on terrorism charges and the other was believed to have linked up with al-Qaida forces while in Yemen. Both were on the U.S. no-fly list, according to a senior U.S. official, because of their links to terrorist movements.
Michel Thooris, secretary-general of the France Police labor union, called the French attack a "breakdown" in security. Somewhere along the line the suspects fell through the cracks, he said: either the judicial system not sentencing them strongly enough, or a failure in police surveillance. "This was a military strike against civilians by individuals at war, in a country at peace," he said.
Thooris also criticized authorities for not doing more to warn the public to stay away from sensitive sites after the suspects went on the run, and said "lax" French regulations allowed for terrorism to be imported from war zones abroad.
"The current policy of blocking French citizens from traveling abroad to wage jihad by letting them run free is absurd," he said. "If they can't go fight in Syria or Iraq, they'll fight here in France."
Many observers tend to blame poor police work in these types of attacks. They note that the French suspects were on police radar, as were two radical Islamists who killed British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013.
And just because someone is on a watch list does not mean they will be followed all the time.
Intelligence officials decline to reveal specifics about their country's lists, but it is believed they include thousands of people around the continent. Lists typically include not only returning jihadis, but people suspected of financial crimes, sex crimes and other serious offenses.
"Those watch lists are quite long, especially since 9/11, which means the police don't have the resources to follow everyone," said Benoit Gomis, a Frenchman who is a counter-terrorism expert with the Chatham House research group in the U.K. "It difficult to track the right people. We have so much noise, so much data, but we can't necessarily find the right information and act on it when it's needed."
In the case of Cherif and Said Kouachi, the chief suspects in the slaughter of 12 people at the satirical newspaper in Paris, efforts to track the brothers were weakened by legal considerations. Said had no criminal record, and the latest legal case against Cherif had ultimately been thrown out.
"You can only do so much within the rule of law," Gomis said. "You can't arrest them for extreme views. Lots of people will say we should have arrested them, or put them in jail, but we need to respect the rule of law."
British security officials say acts of terror are more likely to be committed by people police are already aware of. But in practical terms, they say, the number of people requiring surveillance has jumped substantially in western Europe as an increasing number of mostly young Muslims have traveled to Syria to join forces with the Islamic State group and other militant organizations fighting the regime there.
Spanish officials say roughly 3,000 Europeans have left to join jihadi movements, and many have returned home after getting extensive training in weapon use plus ideological indoctrination as potential terrorists.
These returnees form the core risk group, and predicting which ones will launch attacks is proving extremely difficult, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said Friday in an interview on Spain's Telecinco television network.
"There are hundreds of them in Europe and they could activate themselves at any time as solitary actors, integrated in cells or in loosely structured groups and could produce very tragic events like we have seen in Paris," he said.
Top Italian anti-terrorist prosecutor Armando Spataro said that rogue terrorists are one of the new threats.
"It is clear that when confronted with a situation like these isolated episodes, even the best and the most prepared police in the world cannot prevent them," Spataro said, adding that he did not agree with criticism that the French police had dropped the ball.
Spataro was skeptical that watch lists were helpful in the fight against terrorism - citing the 2009 case of a Nigerian who had been reported by his father as intending to mount a terrorist attack but who managed nonetheless to get on a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. And he was critical of the Italian interior minister's announcement that there were 53 Jihadists under surveillance in Italy.
"If that is true, maybe better not to say anything and investigate them instead," Spataro said. "Maybe now they will flee."
In Austria, Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said agencies "have their eyes" on 60 jihadis who have returned from conflict zones. She said all of them face criminal charges for suspicion of supporting a terrorist organization.
In the Czech Republic, the counter-intelligence service known as BIS is seeking increased powers to monitor financial transactions and communications. Draft legislation says the agency seeks information "about individuals who are known to be supporters and promoters of a radical version of Islam."
Each country uses a different system to keep track of suspected extremists. Germany does not keep a centralized watch list at the federal level, but the security service of each state maintains lists of people considered dangerous.
In extreme cases, German officials can remove passports, require suspects to regularly report to police, or even take them into custody if there is enough evidence to hold them before charges are brought.
Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said late Thursday that the number of Islamic extremists currently considered dangerous is about 260 - the highest number ever.
"The situation here is serious, we have grounds for concern and to take precautions, but not for fear and panic," he said on public television.