Al Qaeda wins this round against Daesh, but what’s with the rival claims?

The granddaddy still has teeth. And with the Charlie Hebdo attack, al Qaeda has shown its jihadist upstart rival Daesh (or Islamic State or ISIS or ISIL) how the old masters do it.

After days of poring over witness accounts and examining clues, the whodunit chapter of the Charlie Hebdo attack is finally over. It was al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch after all.

In an interview with French TV station BFM during Friday’s nail-biting simultaneous sieges, Cherif Kouachi, one of the two Charlie Hebdo attackers, clearly identified his terror patron: “I was sent by al Qaeda in Yemen, it was Sheikh Anwar Awlaki who financed me,” said the younger Kouachi brother.

The next morning, in a statement sent to AP, al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) finally claimed responsibility for the January 7 Charlie Hebdo attack, with an AQAP member noting that the group did not claim the attack earlier because it did not want to jeopardize the assailants’ security.

Kouachi and his elder brother and fellow assailant, Saif, are now dead – gunned down by French police in Dammartin-en-Goele, a nondescript town about 10 miles northeast of Paris. So is their jihadist instigator-financier Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

More than three years after Awlaki’s killing, the weight of his deadly legacy was felt in Paris this week. If Cherif Kouachi’s claim is to be believed, it took all that time to mount the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which is credible given the level of sophistication of the attack. 

Saif Kouachi traveled to Yemen between 2009 and 2011, when he apparently met with Awlaki, according to US and French officials. At one point, the elder Kouachi brother shared a house with Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian national also known as the “Christmas Day Bomber” after he tried to blow up a Detroit-bound US airliner on Dec. 25, 2009.

But while the Christmas Day plot by Awlaki’s Nigerian protégé failed, his French disciple proved far more successful – just when the parent jihadist group most needed a boost.

And with that, al Qaeda has shown that more than 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, and more than three years after Osama bin Laden’s death, the jihadist network can still strike terror and death in the West.

Take that Daesh/Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL, with all your fancy caliphates and attention-grabbing execution videos.

‘More about IS’ than ‘holy war’ against West

Since Daesh seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq last year, the group’s leader Iyad al-Baghdadi has occasionally called for attacks against Western targets, including “the filthy French” by any means -- even with stones.

But bogged by a war against an international coalition and the burden of administering the vast region it controls, Daesh lacks the means to mastermind a sophisticated plot in a major Western city.

Not that al Qaeda’s latest jihadist supremacy over Daesh is any cause for glee.

Daesh was formed in 2013, when Baghdadi -- once the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq -- broke away from the parent group. The parent and breakaway jihadist groups have since fought pitched battles in Syria, with Daesh crushing the once-mighty al Qaeda’s local branch, the Nusra Front.

In a column in the Beirut-based Al-Monitor website, Antoun Issa noted that, “given that al Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan would prefer nothing more than the elimination of its archenemy Baghdadi,” there appears to be “a strong possibility that the Paris attack might be more about IS than fighting a holy war against the West”.

Jihadists cooperate on a personal level

But if there’s clear animosity between al Qaeda and Daesh in the wilds of Syria, the lines between the two rival groups got blurred in France this week.

While French police on Friday had surrounded a printing facility in Dammartin, where the Kouachi brothers were holed up, at a kosher supermarket in Paris, the hostage-taker there was citing al Qaeda’s arch jihadist foe.

In a phone call to BFM, 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly said he had coordinated his actions with the Kouachi brothers.

But then he claimed to be acting on behalf of Daesh.

The links between Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers stretch back to a domestic jihadist outfit called the Buttes Chaumont network – a group operating out of the 19th arrondissement in Paris that was sending would-be jihadists to Iraq a decade ago to fight US troops stationed there.

Speaking to BFM, Coulibaly claimed that he “synchronized” with the Kouachi brothers “to do the operation”. When asked exactly how Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo and Thursday’s killing of a police officer were linked, he replied: “We just decided at the start, so they did Charlie Hebdo and I took care of police officers."

The fact that the Kouachi brothers were sponsored by AQAP while Coulibaly was acting on behalf of Daesh has flummoxed some security experts.

“This is something extremely difficult and extremely important to assess,” said Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“If this is a double claim and they have decided on a kind of joint venture, we have to assess it very quickly because it could change the security situation,” said Moniquet.

But FRANCE 24’s Wassim Nasr, an expert on jihadist movements, notes that, “It’s not that surprising at all because Coulibaly acted as a lone wolf,” said Nasr, referring to Coulibaly’s killing of a police officer the morning after the Kouachi brothers were identified as the main suspects.

“We shouldn’t think al Qaeda and Islamic State are coordinating. This is impossible because the two groups are fighting each other because there are too many differences between them. Al Qaeda has said the caliphate is illegitimate. Here are two organizations that cannot cooperate and the cooperation [this week] was made on a personal level.”

Moniquet though is not so sure. “I agree it could be based on a personal relationship, but we cannot avoid the question because al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the most active branch of al Qaeda,” said Moniquet. “There are enormous tensions inside the group between [al Qaeda chief Ayman] Zawahiri and his followers on the one hand, and the people on their own in Somalia and Yemen. If those tensions push al Qaeda in Yemen to join IS because today IS is making the headlines, I think it’s very serious. It could be something else and we must know if it is.”

Whatever it is, it’s not good news for the international community. If al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch teams up with the new jihadist superstar on the bloc, that would mean a lot of the old expertise can be transferred to legions of foreign jihadists in Daesh ranks. If the two groups continue to be locked in their bitter rivalry battle, the latest AQAP one-upmanship in France is only going to throw down the gauntlet to Daesh. And that is a very scary situation indeed.

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