CAIRO – Yemen’s al-Qaida branch on Wednesday claimed responsibility for last week’s massacre at a Paris satirical newspaper, with one of its top commanders saying the assault was in revenge for the weekly’s publications of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, considered an insult in Islam.
The claim came in a video posting by Nasr al-Ansi, a top commander of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which appeared on the group’s Twitter account. The video was the group’s official claim of the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, although a member of AQAP, as the branch is known, last Friday first confirmed to The Associated Press that the branch had carried out the attack.
In the 11-minute video, al-Ansi says the Charlie Hebdo attack, which killed 12 people – including editors, cartoonists and journalists, as well as two police officers – was in “revenge for the prophet.”
He said AQAP, as the branch is known, “chose the target, laid out the plan and financed the operation” against the weekly, though he produced no evidence to support the claim.
Orders he said, came from al-Qaida’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s successor. The attack on the weekly was the beginning of three days of terror in France that saw 17 people killed before the three Islamic extremist attackers were gunned down by security forces.
Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi who carried out the attack on the paper were “heroes,” al-Ansi said.
“Congratulations to you, the Nation of Islam, for this revenge that has soothed our pain,” said al-Ansi. “Congratulations to you for these brave men have blown off the dust of disgrace and lit the torch of glory in the darkness of defeat and agony.”
In the video, al-Ansi made no claim to the subsequent Paris attack on a kosher grocery store, during which a friend of Kouachis, Amedy Coulibaly, killed a French policewoman Thursday and four hostages on Friday.
Coulibaly appeared in a video message two days after his death, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group, a fierce rival to al-Qaida, saying he had worked in coordination with the Kouachis, the “brothers from our team.”
The Coulibaly video raised questions over possible cooperation between the rival groups, competing for resources, recruits and leadership of Jihad. But al-Ansi called the rival groups’ attacks a “coincidence.”
In Wednesday’s video, al-Ansi also accused France of belonging to the “party of Satan,” saying the European country “shared all of America’s crimes,” a reference to France’s offensive against militants in the west African nation of Mali.
Al-Ansi also warned of more “tragedies and terror” in the future.
Washington considers AQAP as one of al-Qaida’s most dangerous offshoots. Formed in 2009 as a merger between the terror group’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, AQAP has been blamed for a string of unsuccessful bomb plots against American targets.
These include a foiled plan to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 using a new type of explosive hidden in the bomber’s underwear, and another attempt a year later to send mail bombs hidden in toner cartridges on planes bound to the U.S. from the Gulf.
The Charlie Hebdo strike is the Yemen-based branch’s first successful strike outside its home territory – and a triumph for its trademark double-strategy of waging jihad in Yemen to build its strength to strike abroad.
At least one of the two brothers involved in the attack on the Paris weekly traveled to Yemen in 2011 and either received training from or fought alongside the group, authorities say. A U.S. intelligence assessment described to the AP shows that 34-year-old Said Kouachi was trained in preparation to return home and carry out an attack.
Al-Ansi also referenced AQAP’s radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011, saying he arranged the Paris attack. The remark appeared to indicate the attack on the weekly was years in the making, and pointed to a possible connection between the Kouachi brothers and al-Awlaki.
Al-Qaida has in the past threatened Charlie Hebdo and cartoonists who depicted Islam’s prophet. Editor Stephane Charbonnier, one of those killed last Wednesday, was on a hit list published in a 2013 edition of Inspire, the English-language publication issued by AQAP.
Al-Ansi’s video is the first direct claim of responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack. However, a member of AQAP sent a message to the AP last Friday, saying the group had orchestrated the attack. The member spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the group to speak to media.