- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2015

French authorities said Monday that as many as six members of a terrorist sleeper cell involved in last week’s attack on a satirical magazine in Paris may still be at large, as U.S. officials investigated the actual role played by al Qaeda’s main affiliate in the Middle East.

Although al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attack, officials warned that it’s unclear whether the group actively controlled the plot from start to finish or the attackers acted on their own in choosing the target and the timing of the assault.

Officials who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times said there is “definitely a link” to AQAP, but that it may be too eager to take credit for the attack in which 12 people — including prominent cartoonists known for lampooning Islam’s Prophet Muhammad — were gunned down at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

Said Kouachi, one of three suspects killed by French police in the aftermath, traveled to Yemen 2011 to receive terrorist training from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to sources who said there is a strong possibility he met with U.S.-born terrorist suspect Anwar al-Awlaki — who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen later that year.

Speculation about AQAP’s role surged through intelligence circles Monday amid reports that Kouachi — a French citizen of Algerian descent — and his younger brother Cherif, who was among the three slain by police after the attack, may have been members of a terrorist sleeper cell operating under the nose of French intelligence over the past three years.

French police told The Associated Press on Monday that as many as six members of the cell could still be at large. One suspect is a man seen driving a car registered to the widow of Amedy Coulibaly, a third gunman slain by police last week after going on a deadly spree in southern Paris during the hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

SEE ALSO: Charlie Hebdo: High stakes when satire meets globalization

Authorities linked Coulibaly to the Kouachi brothers Sunday after the emergence of a video in which Coulibaly appeared on screen explaining how the attacks in Paris would unfold. But unanswered questions swirled Monday about the video, in which Coulibaly explicitly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist movement in Syria and Iraq — not to AQAP.

In a puzzling twist, French police have said they believe the video was edited during the hours after the Paris attacks and that they are now searching for whoever recorded and posted the video on the Internet.

Two French police officials said authorities were searching the Greater Paris area Monday night for a Mini Cooper registered to Coulibaly’s widow, Hayat Boumeddiene.

Separately, Turkish officials have said Boumeddiene was seen traveling through Turkey with a male companion before reportedly arriving in Syria with him on Jan. 8, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the same day Coulibaly began his deadly spree by killing a policewoman in southern Paris.

France has deployed 10,000 troops to protect sensitive sites in the nation, including Jewish schools and neighborhoods, after the attacks that killed a total of 17 people last week.

The fast-evolving narrative of the attacks’ aftermath has underscored the challenges associated with responding to a wider trend in jihadi terrorism in which extremists increasingly favor attacks on “soft targets” such as shopping malls, sporting events and, in the case of the horror in Paris, the office of a newspaper.

Analysts and intelligence officials have cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that a grand terrorist strategy shift is at play, but they said the trend makes the fight against terrorist threats more complex. Soft-target attacks generally require far less planning and are harder to detect than more sophisticated plots, officials said.

The complexity has been heightened by the emergence of social media as a way for terrorist groups to spread propaganda and messaging to “lone wolf” extremists or small groups of potential terrorists around the globe.

Such factors have played into confusion over the extent to which the Paris attackers worked alone with inspiration from either AQAP or the Islamic State group or took some specific direction from either. Both groups fall under the umbrella of Sunni Muslim extremism. But they are seen to be at odds, with AQAP considered by intelligence officials to be far more aligned than the Islamic State with the core al Qaeda movement created by Osama bin Laden more than a decade ago.

While Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is generally regarded to be what one official described recently as a rising “rock star in global jihad,” the reality is that AQAP is regarded to pose a greater immediate threat to Western interests.

AQAP been seen to be on the upswing in recent years and is the only major affiliate of bin Laden’s al Qaeda that has consistently demonstrated what intelligence officials describe as “external operations capability,” or the capacity to plot and attempt to execute attacks in corners of the world far from the group’s Yemeni headquarters.

With that in mind, Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Monday that “intelligence officials are trying right now to figure out if the Paris attack was actually planned and directed by AQAP officials.”

Mr. Joscelyn, who writes about jihadi terrorism at the foundation’s Long War Journal, said Said Kouachi might have been specifically dispatched back to France by AQAP in 2011 with a generally conceived plot with one or more targets.

“Or there could have been more recent contacts with AQAP that were missed by intelligence agencies,” he said. “Or, it could be more broad in that the attack plot was something he learned about will visiting with AQAP years ago and he and his brother just ran with it.”

“The training that AQAP probably provided seems to have really played a role in the attack,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “These guys made some mistakes, but they were very methodical in how they pulled off the attack.”

There is also uncertainty around AQAP’s role. In an audio message circulated late last week, a top official from the group praised the attack but did not explicitly claim responsibility. However, a written statement circulated on social media accounts during recent days said AQAP conducted the attacks.

The investigative news and commentary publication The Intercept maintained Friday that it had received the full text of the AQAP statement from “source” within AQAP.

The text posted on the publication’s website explicitly stated that AQAP “directed the operation, and they have chosen their target carefully as revenge for the honor” of the Prophet Muhammad.

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