The terrorist attacks in Paris were nightmarish in many ways, but perhaps the most worrisome news to come out of the Charlie Hebdo affair is that followers of a “pure” al Qaeda affiliate – al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula – and of ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – worked together.
Video first obtained by the SITE jihadist monitoring group, analyzed by Thomas Jocelyn at Long War Journal and even reported by the New York Times reveals Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly swearing his loyalty to ISIS. “I pledged allegiance to the caliph [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] as soon as the caliphate was declared,” said Coulibaly. It’s also notable that Coulibaly’s girlfriend and accomplice, Hayat Boumeddienne, escaped from France to Turkey and then to Syria – and presumably ISIS protection – just prior to the attacks.
That makes the Paris attacks something akin to an ISIS-al Qaeda combined operation. The other two Paris attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, professed to be trained and funded by the Yemen-based AQAP, had been interviewed by Anwar al-Awlaki – the group’s charismatic American-born propagandist killed in a controversial drone strike in 2011 – and, while in Yemen, had befriended Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber” who attempted to blow up a Christmas Day airline flight to Detroit in 2009.
While there is much still to be learned about the plotting that led to the Paris attacks, and to what degree either ISIS or AQAP might have been “organizationally” involved, the facts seem to contravene both the conventional wisdom of the terror-watching intelligence community and the public-relations narrative of the Obama Administration. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, a former senior adviser to the State Department for counterterrorism, has long advanced the argument that al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahari “lost control” of the global network and that ISIS is entirely and forever independent and “now officially the biggest and baddest global jihadi group on the planet.” And speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Attorney General Eric Holder insisted, “We don’t have any credible information that would allow us to make a determination as to which organization was responsible.” The administration also will be sorely tempted to stick with a “lone wolf” – or “wolves,” plural – narrative of the Paris attacks; for the White House, the idea that the global jihadist movement is fractured is evidence of the success of its counterterrorism and Middle East policies.
Absent confirming evidence – the kind that the Snowden revelations have made it harder to obtain – it will be difficult to establish the Paris operation as the cats-and-dogs-sleeping-together (to channel Ghostbusters, the font of much strategic wisdom) spawn of an ISIS-al Qaeda union. Nonetheless, the consequences of such a union, even an arm’s-length and temporary “deconfliction” or “synchronization” of the sort that is not uncommon in Syria, are so frightening that any whiff should be investigated and assessed intensely. The Middle East, in particular, is the sort of place where oh-that-could-never-happen assumptions end in tears.