Responsibility for the deadly attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo hasn’t been established yet. Although a French newspaper is reporting that the Paris police have identified the three people involved in the shooting, no group has claimed responsibly and the gunmen, who killed 12 people including high-profile magazine staffers and police officers, made a clean getaway.
Analysts are left with shreds of evidence, none of it conclusive and much of it difficult to confirm.
The gunmen displayed a high level of competence, although it’s unclear whether that’s necessarily a reflection of professional-quality military training. There are reports that one of the gunmen was speaking Russian, and that another claimed they were working on behalf of “Al Qaeda in Yemen.”
But these reports aren’t considered airtight. And there are conflicting accounts of the quality of the attackers’ French, a matter with potential bearing on the origin or nationality of the terrorists themselves.
There are still data points that can taken out of this thick analytical morass — circumstantial but possibly useful evidence as to who might have carried out the attack.
Terrorism analyst Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, performed an “analysis of conflicting hypotheses” based on his tentative conclusion that there are four likely “potential perpetrators or scenarios:”
- An Al Qaeda Central (AQC) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed plot from Yemen or potentially Pakistan (AQAP is AQC at this point)
- An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq
- An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West
- An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months.
His analysis is reflected in this chart. A red #JeSuisCharlie is pasted where Watts has seen “evidence or potential evidence supporting each assessed factor in the scenario.”
The size and training of the attack team, along with its successful escape plan and use of advanced weaponry, all suggest that the attack was carried out by terrorists with some kind of larger group infrastructure behind them. It has few of the characteristics of “lone wolf attacks” — although there’s always the chance this attack represents a new, virtually unseen type of ISIS and Al Qaeda-inspired action.
That leaves two possibilities: Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonie, who was killed in the Paris attack, was identified as one of 12 individuals “wanted dead or alive for crimes against Islam” in the October 2012 issue of Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language propaganda magazine. At the same time, the magazine had published cartoons satirizing Ayad al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader. So both groups had a potential motive for attacking the publication.
An estimated 800 people from France have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS, a possible data point suggesting the group’s involvement. But reports of the attackers proclaiming their allegiance to “Al Qaeda in Yemen” would suggest that Al Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian peninsula or even Al Qaeda Central could be responsible.
“A few data points suggest Al Qaeda. A few data points suggest ISIS. And we just don’t have enough information to really know right now,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.
Gartenstein-Ross added that the competition between Al Qaeda and ISIS, which represent differing strains of jihadist practice and thought and are competing for recruits, affiliates, and support around the world, makes it very likely that one of the organisations will claim responsibility, assuming one of them is in fact responsible.
But there’s no clear time-frame for a claim of responsiblity. It took Al Qaeda about a year to declare itself responsible for the July 7th, 2005 attacks in London, although Gartenstein-Ross believes that competition between ISIS and Al Qaeda will make the groups more eager to connect themselves to the Paris attack.
At this point, one of the likelier possibilities — relatively speaking — is the attackers probably aren’t finished.
“I think there’s a strong possibility they intend to carry out a secondary attack,” Gartenstein-Ross says. In that case, the Paris attack could be reminiscent of the 2008 Mumbai assault, another “urban warfare”-style gun attack in which terrorists from the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba moved between multiple targets. But Gartenstein-Ross notes that in Paris, the attackers “launched the attack and then made a getaway,” which wasn’t the case in Mumbai, where terrorists “stood and fought every step of the way.”
A possible precedent here could be Mohammed Merah, a jihadist who killed 7 people over a 8-day period in the French city of Tolouse in March of 2012. His rampage that culminated in an attack on a Jewish school in which 4 people were killed. The Toulouse killer carried out his attacks over a span of a week, and it’s possible that a secondary attack in Paris could be days rather than hours away.
But like Watts, Gartenstein-Ross cautions that any analysis at this point has a degree of speculation behind it: “The fact is we have very little information right now.”
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