The chief of al-Qaeda took a personal interest in planning the terrorist attacks in Paris, one of the organisation’s senior leaders in Yemen claimed the day Charlie Hebdo defiantly returned to business with a cartoon of Mohamed on its front cover.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda head based in Pakistan, funded the attacks which brought jihad to the heart of Europe following the directives laid down by Osama bin Laden before his death. Another Sunni extremist leader, the hugely influential internet cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, also supposedly played a key role in the plan before he was killed in an American drone strike.
The “official” announcement of responsibility for the attacks came from Sheikh Nasr bin Ali al-Ansi, the chief ideologue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), after other Islamist groups, including Isis, have maintained that they were the ones who carried out the attacks, which cost 17 lives.
Amedy Coulibaly, who took hostages at a Jewish supermarket, four of whom were to die, has appeared in a “martyrdom” video pledging allegiance to Isis. His wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, has fled, it is believed, to the organisation’s capital, the Syrian town of Raqqa.
The use of the names of its most well-known leaders may be seen as an attempt by al-Qaeda to gain ground in a competition among international jihadist groups to take credit for the bloody acts which sent shock waves through the Western world. However, both US and French security officials are said to be focusing on Yemen as the probable birthplace of the lethal mission.
In footage released on Wednesday, Ansi held that the assault had been long planned to punish those who had published images of Mohamed, which is sacrilegious in Islam. He read out a warning from Bin Laden: “If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions. The answer is what you see, not what you hear.”
France, Ansi said, belongs to the “party of Satan”, and he threatened more “tragedies and terror”, one of a series of invectives against the country for its part in military operations in the Middle East and Africa as well as its restriction on Muslim women wearing the veil. The 11-minute video has a scene of the Eiffel Tower collapsing in smoke and flames.
The Aqap leader made no reference to claims by Coulibaly that he had helped the brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who murdered 12 people in the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo – presenting a scenario of an unprecedented Isis and al-Qaeda alliance, at least at a local level.
Officials in Yemen have stated that the Kouachi brothers had received military training at Marib, an Aqap stronghold, after crossing over from Oman, and had also held meetings with Awlaki during the same visit in 2011. The American-born preacher, the “Bin Laden of the internet”, was hunted down by the CIA and killed in the same year.
Chérif Kouachi told a French television station that his mission had been commissioned by Aqap and he had received at least part of the funding from Awlaki. The brothers were not put under observation by Yemeni security forces, officials said, because neither the French nor any other Western country had raised any concern about them.
Chérif Kouachi, it was also claimed, had paid a visit to Yemen in 2009, purportedly to study Arabic grammar, and may have shared a room with Umar Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” now serving a life sentence after being convicted of attempting to bring down a passenger airliner over Detroit.
It has emerged that French security agencies had stopped watching the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly, despite their involvement in extremism, because they were no longer deemed to be threats. They cited a lack of resources.
Morten Storm, a Danish jihadist who became a double agent for Western intelligence services, claimed: “Awlaki had asked me in the past to get ‘brothers’, that is Muslim terrorists, over. But the condition was that they were not under surveillance or interest of the government.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies