Yemen branch of Al Qaeda says it planned Paris attack

Yemen branch of Al Qaeda says it planned Paris attack
In a video released Jan. 14, Nasr Ansi, a senior commander of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, declares that the group organized and financed the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. (Al-Malahem Media)

Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen on Wednesday claimed responsibility for planning and financing last week's massacre at a satirical magazine in Paris. The assertion came as U.S. intelligence agencies' ability to track the group has been hobbled by civil unrest in the Arab nation and its political power-sharing deal with an Iranian-backed rebel group.

In a nearly 12-minute video posted online Wednesday, Nasr Ansi, a senior commander for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said the terrorist group known as AQAP "chose the target, laid out the plan and financed" the Jan. 7 attack on the Paris editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Ansi vowed more attacks on the West. He also said, as Western investigators had suspected, that the attack was conceived by Anwar Awlaki, an American-born cleric who U.S. officials said became AQAP's director of external operations. Awlaki was killed in Yemen in 2011 by an American drone strike.

U.S. officials said they believe the claim but cannot confirm it. They said one of the two brothers who carried out the assault, Said Kouachi, met Awlaki during a visit to Yemen in 2011 and was given about $20,000 to launch an attack in France.

But Western intelligence agencies are looking more closely at the two brothers' travel. One theory is that Cherif Kouachi visited Yemen using his older brother's passport while Said Kouachi, who had the cleaner criminal record at the time, stayed in France.

At this point, intelligence officials have uncovered no communications between the brothers and AQAP since 2011, suggesting the group did not micromanage or supervise the Paris attacks. A total of 17 people were killed in the magazine offices, during the manhunt for those involved, and at a kosher market. The two brothers and a third gunman were killed by security forces.

In the video posted Wednesday, Ansi said the gunman who killed four Jewish patrons at the kosher market had not coordinated with the Kouachi brothers, calling it a "coincidence."

Western intelligence officials have struggled to unravel the plot in part because of the violent three-way power struggle that has convulsed Yemen in recent months.

In a sign of the difficulties, the U.S. has not launched any drone strikes against AQAP leaders since Nov. 12, said analysts with the website Long War Journal, which tracks such attacks. The two-month pause contrasts with an average of two drone strikes a month in Yemen over the previous 12 months.

The bloody conflict pits Sunni Muslim-dominated AQAP, long the target of a campaign of U.S. drone strikes, against Shiite Muslim Houthis, who are aided by Iranian weapons and advisors from Iran's Revolutionary Guard, according to analysts who study Yemen. Both groups oppose the central government in Sana and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the country.

AQAP, considered Al Qaeda's most dangerous franchise, has seen a recent increase in recruits, analysts say. They say the boost was fueled both by a backlash against U.S. drone strikes and in response to a Houthi offensive.

The Houthi rebels in effect control much of the capital and large parts of the country. They have demanded that the government halt cooperation with U.S. counter-terrorism operations, including drone strikes, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the situation in Yemen.

Other U.S. officials believe American counter-terrorism operations have been disrupted by the political chaos in Yemen, rather than by a decision from the Houthi leadership barring all cooperation with U.S. officials.

After their military gains, the Houthis forced the government to sign a deal last fall that gave them a leading voice in the government and influence over the nation's security services, as well as other agencies.

"The increasing instability is deeply worrying and the new dynamic created by the Houthi advance will undoubtedly scramble our counter-terrorism efforts there," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

The civil war in Yemen has created "fertile ground for a resurgence of AQAP," Schiff said. "And it wasn't as if AQAP was a marginal threat to begin with."

Yemen's president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, worked closely with U.S. intelligence officials after he took power in 2012, sharing information on AQAP operations in Yemen and helping the U.S. target militants there. But with Hadi's government struggling to survive, his access to useful intelligence is more limited.

Tiny but strategically located Yemen has been a tinderbox since 2011, when the government of its authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was pushed out in an uprising propelled by the regionwide revolts of the "Arab Spring."

The U.S. and the Houthis see AQAP as a common enemy, but there is deep distrust between the two.

Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA officer who is director of the Brookings Intelligence Project in Washington, said the rise of the Houthis against the government in Yemen is "deeply damaging" to U.S. interests.

The two-month pause in U.S. drone strikes against Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen "is probably the lack of targets being proposed by Yemeni counter-terrorism officials," Riedel said.

The remote and rugged reaches of Yemen, known for lawlessness even before the central government's authority receded over the last year, are largely out of reach for the U.S. military.

U.S. commandos last month failed in an attempt to rescue an American journalist, Luke Somers, who was held captive by Al Qaeda. Somers' captors fatally shot him during the operation.

Suicide bombings causing large-scale fatalities have become almost commonplace.

A blast at the gates of a police academy in Sana killed 50 people this month. An attack in the central city of Ibb killed dozens more. AQAP claimed responsibility for launching a rocket toward the U.S. Embassy in Sana in September and detonating two bombs near the embassy in November.

American intelligence officials believe AQAP remains bent on attacking the U.S. homeland, has advanced bomb-making skills and has invested several years in recruiting potential terrorists from Europe and the U.S. to launch future attacks.

The group was responsible for a failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day in 2009. The bomb, which was hidden in a recruit's underwear, passed undetected through airport security but failed to detonate.

In October 2010, Saudi intelligence helped U.S. and British intelligence disrupt an AQAP plot to smuggle explosives in printer cartridges that were shipped on cargo planes bound for Chicago.

After the Paris attack, suspicion quickly fell on AQAP. Months earlier, the group had designated Charlie Hebdo and its editor in chief, Stephane Charbonnier, as targets for publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Charbonnier was among those killed in last week's attack.

Bennett and Richter reported from Washington and King from Cairo.

Follow @laurakinglat on Twitter for news out of the Middle East