The attack on Charlie Hebdo has thrust Al-Qaeda back in the spotlight as the jihadist network proves it can still attack the West and seeks to regain ground lost to the Islamic State group.
The militant Islamist organisation founded by Osama bin Laden has seen its preeminence challenged by IS, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.
IS has increasingly become a global reference point for jihadists, with many claiming allegiance to its self-declared “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Analysts had warned that the two groups’ rivalry could spark a dangerous competition to win jihadist hearts, boosting the threat of extremist attacks in the West.
Their fears were realised last week in Paris, when extremist gunmen killed 17 people in attacks including the assault on satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo — since claimed by Al-Qaeda — and a hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket.
“The attack on Charlie Hebdo definitely puts Al-Qaeda back in the saddle in its rivalry with the Islamic State,” said Yemen expert Laurent Bonnefoy.
“Al-Qaeda continues to be a threat, especially as the rivalry between the two groups can trigger a form of competition.”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the network’s powerful Yemeni branch — claimed responsibility on Wednesday for the assault on Charlie Hebdo.
– AQAP’s first ‘success’ in West –
It said the attack followed orders by Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and was “vengeance” for Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
“The claim marks AQAP’s first official Western attack carried out to success, following past failed attempts,” wrote Rita Katz of US monitoring group SITE Intelligence, saying it “illustrates (the) group’s reach”.
AQAP, formed in 2009 by the merging of Al-Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni branches, was behind the failed attempt by the Nigerian “underwear bomber” to blow up a US plane on Christmas Day in 2009 and a bid to send explosives on a cargo plane bound for the United States a year later.
Many jihadists have turned their backs on Al-Qaeda — led by the Egyptian Zawahiri since bin Laden was killed by a US commandos in 2011 — amid such failures and the emergence of IS.
Originally Al-Qaeda in Iraq, IS took advantage of the conflict in neighbouring Syria to seize territory, sweeping aside the Syrian Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front.
In June, IS took control of swathes of Iraq in a major offensive, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” in the areas under its control and committing widespread atrocities.
IS has repeatedly called on sympathisers in Western countries to carry out “lone wolf” attacks and Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris, claimed to be a member of IS.
– ‘Propaganda through action’ –
Following the rise of IS, “Al-Qaeda is trying to react through operations resembling those it conducted in 2001 to 2011,” said Mathieu Guidere, an Islamic studies professor at Toulouse University.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo is “propaganda through action,” which could win back support from some alienated Al-Qaeda supporters, he said.
If any branch of Al-Qaeda was likely to succeed in such an attack, analysts said, it was AQAP.
Despite a US campaign of drone strikes, the group remains strong in Yemen, where it has a power base in the lawless desert and frequently kills government forces and members of rival militias.
It is also a haven for foreign fighters and, according to security sources, Said Kouachi — who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks with his brother Cherif — travelled to Yemen in 2011 and received weapons and training from AQAP.
For April Longley, an expert at the International Crisis Group think tank, AQAP’s role in the Charlie Hebdo attack also highlights challenges for Yemen.
Growing instability in Yemen — where Shiite Huthi militia seized control of the capital in September — has allowed Al-Qaeda to thrive, she said.
“The acute weakness of the state … is providing new opportunities for AQAP.”