Al-Qaida Proved in Paris That It’s Still a Greater Threat to the West Than ISIS

Though Western militaries are engaged in a campaign against Islamic State, Al-Qaida, and especially its Yemen branch, is far more determined to bring the war to European turf.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The gunmen leaving the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after the attack there last week.
The gunmen leaving the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after the attack there last week.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The three gunmen in last week’s attacks in Paris claimed affiliation with two different organizations between them. Cherif Kouachi, who with his brother Said Kouachi killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, said in an interview he gave to a French affiliate of CNN from the print works where they were later shot and killed by police, that the brothers were acting on behalf of Al-Qaida in Yemen, that is, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. On Wednesday, AQAP itself claimed responsibility for the attack, though it’s not yet clear how close the brothers’ connection with the Yemen-based organization really was.

Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four Jewish hostages at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket as well as a policewoman, described himself in a video released after his death as affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. However, no such connection has yet been discovered, and his video may simply reflect the zeitgeist: Muslim extremists in France increasingly identify with the organization that is on the front lines in the battle against the West.

But though Western militaries are fighting Islamic State, Al-Qaida has proved itself more capable of inflicting damage on the West. And its Yemen branch has for years been the most dangerous and effective of all.

It’s not by chance that America has conducted systematic drone strikes against senior AQAP operatives in Yemen. But even the 2011 assassination of radical Yemenite-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki failed to blunt AQAP’s momentum. The group has conducted several ambitious (albeit unsuccessful) operations, including trying to blow up planes using booby-trapped ink cartridges.

One of the last orders given by Al-Qaida’s founder, Osama bin Laden, before American soldiers killed him in May 2011 was that terror attacks against the West should take priority over fighting Muslim states. AQAP has continued that policy even while embroiled in a civil war in Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthi tribes have made significant gains. Yemen is a convenient operational base for Al-Qaida, thanks to a weak government combined with growing support from Sunni tribes who hope AQAP will help them block the Houthis.

AQAP hasn’t hid its intentions; they are evident in the pages of its English-language magazine Inspire. The suspects in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack famously made use, allegedly, of a 2010 article titled, “Making a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Charlie Hebdo editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed in last week’s attack, was on a “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam” list that appeared in Inspire two years ago. The December 2014 issue contained further instructions for attacking the West, including how to make bombs that will pass airport security. A French passport can be seen in the corner of an image used to illustrate the article.

Different priorities

Aviv Oreg, a former Military Intelligence officer who now runs CeifiT, a company that studies global jihadist groups, says Islamic State’s priorities differ greatly from those of Al-Qaida. “Islamic State wants an Islamic caliphate first, at the expense of corrupt Arab regimes. It sees dealing with the West as less urgent.”

But the many Westerners joining the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, most of whom seek to join Islamic State, changed the focus of European intelligence agencies. And amid all the trees — the thousands of their citizens who have joined Islamic State and the hundreds who have since returned to Europe — they lost sight of an important development in the forest: Al-Qaida’s preparations for more attacks on the West. The agencies were flooded with so many warning that they had trouble picking out the most relevant ones.

Though Islamic State has more foot soldiers in Europe as a result of fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, so far there is no evidence that the group is planning attacks on European targets. Coulibaly seems to have been motivated by a combination of anger at Charlie Hebdo’s ongoing provocations against Islam and a general desire to inflict damage on the West, intensified by the murderous civil wars in Syria and Iraq and Western air strikes on Islamic State.

Sunday’s march of world leaders through Paris was presented as an impressive show of international solidarity. Yet the list of leaders who did not attend suggests that anger over Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of the prophet Mohammed is not limited to Islamic extremists. Though Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came, not a single North African leader did. Even Morocco’s foreign minister, who was in Paris at the time, did not participate.

Europe has suffered serious attacks by Muslim extremists before, including in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. Thus while last week’s attacks signify further deterioration, they won’t necessarily constitute a turning point.

Of all the Western European countries, Britain has taken the harshest measures against Islamic incitement and terror. French oversight of jihadists has been more lax, though this can be expected to change. France’s defense establishment will get new powers and more money. But experience shows that the terrorists will also gain, as harsher countermeasures can be expected to accelerate the radicalization of young Western Muslims, thereby increasing the terrorists’ pool of potential recruits.

For now, the French are doing what America and Israel have done after similar attacks — flooding the streets with soldiers to improve the public’s sense of security. But that can’t continue forever.

Israel should assist French Jews by providing intelligence and security advice. That would be far more helpful than telling them to leave France and move to Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did. By so doing, he both increased their vulnerability to charges of dual loyalty and overlooked the fact that terrorists have killed far more Jews in Israel than in France in recent years.

Yet Netanyahu’s conduct in France seems to reflect a broader problem: Israel’s inability to grasp the ongoing deterioration of its strategic situation in the West. Israelis have become increasingly convinced both that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central to events in the Middle East and that it cannot be solved for now in any case. The Western view, however, is the opposite.

With every round of fighting in Gaza and every Palestinian civilian killed, the West’s impatience with Israel’s explanations for continuing the occupation grows. European understanding for Israel’s positions has already eroded, and in time, America’s will too. As the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly deaf to the Netanyahu government’s explanations, American support for Israel — one of the cornerstones of Israel’s power — is becoming ever shakier.

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