Both Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State have claimed credit for the attacks in France. The involvement of members from both groups could herald a new stage in the Al-Qaeda/Islamic State relationship where their supporters ignore the competition between their leaders.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula declared responsibility for the attacks. Said and Cherif Kouachi were trained in Yemen in 2011 and met Anwar al-Awlaki, the American head of the group who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Cherif Kouachi said they were financed by Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni operation and emphasized they were “sent” to carry out the attack, perhaps to bring attention to Al-Qaeda’s superior capabilities in organizing versus the Islamic State’s reliance on independent “lone wolves.”
The Islamic State likewise declared responsibility. The jihadist who seized the kosher restaurant and killed four hostages, Amedy Coulibaly, appeared in a video declaring allegiance to the Islamic State and being sure to point out that he collaborated with the Kouachi brothers.
The personal ties between Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi go back to at least 2010 when they visited an Islamist cleric in a French prison together. Coulibaly told the police that he meets with Kouachi often and they became friends while imprisoned. They even jointly planned a prison break.
It is almost certain that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State leadership did not work together in perpetrating the attack.
The two groups had a very public falling out and have been ferociously attacking each other’s legitimacy ever since. In September, Al-Qaeda emphasized its own bid for a caliphate as part of this competition. The Islamic State’s most recent English-language magazine took aim at Al-Qaeda in Yemen specifically.
Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have also been putting distance between themselves and the barbarism of the Islamic State and the like. For instance, they condemned the Pakistani Taliban’s massacre of children at a school.
There are no concrete signs of reconciliation at the top and the groups would have acknowledged each other in their claims of responsibility. The partnership would be formally announced in order to maximize panic and an explanation to each group’s supporters would be necessary.
This is the first time that Al-Qaeda and Islamic State devotees have looked past their leader’s differences so they can work together in a terrorist attack on the West. The question is whether this can spark a trend or whether this is an anomaly attributable to these jihadists’ close relationship that predates the rivalry by years.
Al-Qaeda affiliates have tried to stake out a middle-ground where they endorse the jihad of the Islamic State but not the legitimacy of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Boko Haram in Nigeria has adopted the style of the Islamic State while remaining loyal to Al-Qaeda officially.
Other groups have also tried to position themselves into a more pragmatic grey area. The Clarion Project broke the story about the pro-Islamic State sentiment of the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a powerful Pakistani terror group affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
The leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, has not publicly endorsed the legitimacy of the Islamic State caliphate and he’s criticized the group’s massacres of Muslims. Saeed feels it should target Israel instead. Nonetheless, Saeed has more privately preached in support of the Islamic State.
This may mean that the collaboration between the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly is the actualization of a broader opinion within Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that sees the leaderships’ rifts as unnecessarily hostile. We have seen no backlash online from the social media accounts of the groups’ supporters over the teaming-up.
The attacks in Paris were more dramatic than any single operation in the West committed by either group on its own in years. That fact will trigger a very serious rethinking among their members about the wisdom of their divisions.
The ramifications of a productive reexamination would be very dangerous.
The immediate impact would be a boost in recruitment and morale, fueled in-part by the understandable anxiety of the Western media as the cooperation is reported. Both groups will feel emboldened by the cooperation and the overall violent Salafist jihad cause they share will gain momentum.
Each side has much to offer the other.
The Islamic State, by definition, is a state with an infrastructure. It is the richest terrorist group on Earth, despite being mostly self-financed, and it is armed to the teeth. It has stronger messaging and online capabilities, exemplified in yesterday's hackings of the U.S. Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube page and publishing of American generals’ personal information.
Al-Qaeda has much more experienced operatives, a more expansive international network, relationships with other groups and more public support. Unlike the Islamic State, it has major donors and appears to have a larger network of narcotics smugglers.
Together, they would greatly increase the threat of terrorism inside the West and strengthen each other’s jihads in the Middle East. The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are separated geographically except for in Syria, theoretically making a resolution very possible.
Syria is at the heart of the feud between Zawahiri and Baghdadi, but this potential shift could still result in local truces between Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Syria so they can focus on their common Kurdish and Shiite enemies and destroy any Sunni rebels who stand in their way.
Every terrorist in Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State want to follow in the footsteps of Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers. The Paris attacks are the new benchmark. Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to be aware of this possible new trend of cooperation between these two lethal groups and to adjust their intelligence-gathering and preventative measures accordingly.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.