IRBIL, IRAQ — As French police and security forces scoured the country for the two brothers suspected of massacring 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, intelligence officials in Europe and the United States were conducting a search of their own – for evidence that would link the two to international terrorism organizations.
French officials told the intelligence services of two neighboring countries that they believed the two suspects, Cherif Kouachi and his brother Said, had recently traveled to Syria, where they’d fought with jihadist groups. But the French alert, distributed throughout Europe’s no-visa-required travel zone, offered no specifics on when the brothers supposedly traveled to or from Syria, and American officials, for one, were said to doubt the accuracy of the information.
“We’re assuming that the French are basing this on intelligence, but they have yet to specifically share it, as one assumes they’re pretty busy hunting these guys down right now,” said one European intelligence official who does not have permission to speak to the news media.
“But it’s certainly logical based on their clear professionalism and comfort handling their weapons in executing the journalists and police, as well as making their escape,” he added.
U.S. officials are said to be more interested in connections between the Kouachis and Yemen, where al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remains al Qaida’s most aggressive branch. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, now a CBS News consultant, told the network’s morning show Thursday that one of the Kouachis is thought to have traveled to Yemen in 2011.
Other sources said he was referring to Said Kouachi, 34, an assertion that was backed by French news reports. The French news magazine Le Point, citing unnamed European officials, said Said Kouachi had spent several months of 2011 training in Yemen with al Qaida-linked groups.
“We’re looking at an al Qaida in Yemen-directed attack,” Morell said. If further investigation proves that true, he said, Wednesday’s newspaper assault would be the first AQAP attack outside of Yemen since the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt when a Nigerian AQAP recruit attempted to detonate a bomb aboard a commercial airliner as it landed in Detroit.
U.S. intelligence officials refused to comment on what their investigation has found and declined to endorse Morell’s statements. But they were echoed by John Miller, a former CBS correspondent who now is the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, who appeared with Morell.
Also still unanswered is whether the Charlie Hebdo attackers were acting under their own initiative or were carrying out orders from a terrorist superior elsewhere. While French authorities have told news outlets that 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad faces no charges in Wednesday’s attack, there were worries that other conspirators remained at large.
On Thursday morning, a gunman described by witnesses as of African descent and wearing body armor shot and killed a police officer in Paris before escaping, leaving authorities to scramble to determine if the incidents were related.
Cherif Kouachi, at 32 the younger of the two brothers, has a long history of al Qaida-related sympathies. According to official French statements, he was convicted in 2007 of attempting to join al Qaida in Iraq and was detained for nearly three years as part of a broader investigation into an international jihadist trafficking ring that delivered fighters to Iraq to battle U.S. troops there.
Also convicted in that investigation was Boubaker al Hakim, who now claims to be a member of the Islamic State, the successor group to al Qaida in Iraq, that now controls large chunks of Iraq and Syria. Last month, al Hakim claimed responsibility for the assassination in 2013 of two secular politicians in Tunisia, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, researcher Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on radical Islam at Paris’ Sciences Po University, told the Agence France Press news agency in an interview. Filiu suggested that that connection suggests an Islamic State tie to the Kouachi brothers.
But Morell and Miller dismissed the likelihood of an Islamic State link, despite worries in Europe that hundreds of Europeans have flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s “job,” Miller said, “is to take territory and hold it, plant a flag and say this is the Islamic State. They are in the nation-building business.”
AQAP, on the other hand, is the al Qaida wing tasked with external actions, and the travel to Yemen by one of the Kouachi brothers “would suggest,” Miller said, “that this was organized and directed by al Qaida’s external planning operation.”
Indeed, Wednesday’s operation appeared to closely follow a script commonly used by al Qaida and the slew of groups its ideology and training camps have inspired. At least one witness said that the gunmen identified themselves as al Qaida members during the massacre in the newspaper’s newsroom. Le Point also said that as the gunmen were abandoning their getaway car, they told a passer-by “tell the media it’s al Qaida in Yemen.”
The attackers also appeared to be experienced and prepared. They reacted calmly when they realized they initially had arrived at the wrong office and quickly adjusted their plan to find the correct location, a sign that they were operationally comfortable and able to overcome a mistake also made not uncommonly by police and military raiders around the world.
The timing of the attack, during the newspaper’s hour-long weekly editorial meeting, indicates the attackers knew the editorial schedule of the newspaper and knew it was the one hour of the work week where all the top editors and cartoonists would be present in one room. And the attackers were able to overcome significant security procedures for a newspaper that was known to be a target and had been firebombed in 2011, including at least one armed police officer assigned to protect the editor because of previous threats.
They also called out the names of specific cartoonists to kill but let others live, and were comfortable enough with their weapons that they were able to accurately control their fire.
Still, the complexity of the operation would fall well within the capabilities of a small group of men trained on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen. According to a police official quoted by Bloomberg news service, automatic AK-47 variants like those used by the attackers are easily purchased in Paris for about $1,200, making financing such an operation easily within range of a small group.
Such small groups have planned previous spectacular attacks without much outside support, including the July 7, 2005, London transit bombings, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and a disrupted plot in 2006 to attack Heathrow airport.
The possibility that a small group could have planned the Paris attack on its own chills European security officials.
“That’s what we all fear, that this is where it’s headed,” said the European intelligence official. “These guys come home with skills and motivation but aren’t part of the traditional network.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero
BY MITCHELL PROTHERO
McClatchy Foreign Staff
January 8, 2015