January 9, 2015 6:08 pm
Updated: January 19, 2015 2:42 pm

What we know about the AQAP connection to the Charlie Hebdo attack

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WATCH: There were no hijacked planes and no buildings exploding. Instead, the terrorist targets in Paris were a magazine office and grocery store. Vassy Kapelos looks at whether threats against soft targets are the new reality of terrorism.

The Associated Press reported Friday that this week’s attacks in Paris were connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AP said that an AQAP member said the group ordered the attack on the offices of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

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But hours before that development, one of the gunmen reportedly admitted the connection himself, in an interview with French television.

Charlie Hebdo shooting suspect Cherif Kouachi reportedly told France’s BFMTV he was financed by the Yemen-based affiliate of the al-Qaeda network.

The television network said it was attempting to reach witnesses in the vicinity of the printing shop where the brothers were holed up, in Dammartin-en-Goële, 12 kilometres north of Paris, when a reporter purportedly reached Cherif by phone.

Cherif — who was killed Friday along with his older brother, Said, after a standoff with police on Friday — told BFMTV he and his brother were “defenders of the Prophet [Muhammad].”

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A witness at the scene of Wednesday’s massacre at the office of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, where 12 people were gunned down, claimed one of the shooters said, “Tell the media that this is al-Qaeda in the Yemen.”

This breaks a pattern of recent homegrown terror attacks, in Canada and Australia, that appear to have been inspired by ISIS — the disavowed offshoot of al-Qaeda that has attracted thousands of foreign fighters to its battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

Terror and security experts have been examining the possible AQAP connection in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, noting the gunmen were better trained and more coordinated than the suspects in the attack in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and the Parliament Hill shooting, both in October, and the Sydney Cafe Siege in December.

Cherif, 32, has long-standing links to al-Qaeda. He was arrested in 2005 when he attempted to fly to Syria, en route to an al-Qaeda camp in Iraq run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was convicted in 2008 and handed a three-year sentence, but he was released because of time served.

READ MORE: Will the Charlie Hebdo attack fuel Europe’s far-right?

Foreign Policy reported Cherif first got involved in the Paris jihadi movement known as 19th Arrondisment Network — a group based in an ethnically-diverse neighbourhood that “worked to funnel young French Muslim men to Iraq to fight U.S. and coalition forces.”

Older brother Said, aged 34, had direct ties to AQAP. He travelled to Yemen in 2011 and allegedly trained “in small arms combat and marksmanship before returning to France,” Daily Beast reported. His connection to AQAP is still under investigation.

It was during that time he reportedly met with the late, U.S.-born Anwar al Awlaki — the AQAP behind al-Qaeda’s propaganda magazine, Inspire, which listed Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier as “wanted dead or alive for crimes against Islam” in 2013. Charbonnier was among the Charlie Hebdo staff killed in the attack.

READ MORE: Paris gunmen were ‘well-prepared’ for Charlie Hebdo attack

AQAP is a force to be reckoned with and it has become one of the most prominent of all the al-Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East and North Africa.

“Al-Qaeda in Yemen has a history of doing what it says it’s going to do, so it’s plausible that it is al-Qaeda in Yemen,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public Affairs, in an interview with Global News earlier this week.

The other factor that makes AQAP such a formidable organization is that it operates on what is essentially lawless turf in Yemen.

“[AQAP] flourishes on the fact that Yemen is a failed state and a society where government doesn’t really function,” said Christian Leuprecht, of the Royal Canadian Military College of Canada. “So, this becomes a much more difficult challenge because it means that we need to have a multi-tiered strategy to confront this particular problem.

The group made major territorial gains in 2011, following the uprising that forced the country’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down after more than 30 years in power.

Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, which chronicles militant activities, said Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda has managed to seize territory inside Yemen, provide training and support for extremist groups operating in Syria, Iraq and other regions, and promote “lone wolf” attacks in the West.

“They are active in the heart of the Middle East. They threaten the Yemeni government and they are directing their activities externally as well,” he said. “And they are serving to train and support in other theaters.”

Much like ISIS, AQAP’s ultimate goal is a global caliphate, Roggio said.

“They have been very effective in their leadership, being able to survive a U.S. drone campaign and plotting attacks, as well as coordinating with other jihadists groups, he said. “It is a group that sent its fighters to multiple theaters and then re-tasked them to provide support to other jihadist groups.”

With files from the Associated Press

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