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Who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Assessing a Jihadi Attack in The West, ISIS vs al Qaeda

Author:  Clint Watts
January 7, 2015

Who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Assessing a Jihadi Attack in The West, ISIS vs al Qaeda

Today’s terrorist attack in Paris killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine; presumably for their perceived insults to Islam and/or ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  As expected, media outlets, governments and their citizens want to know who is responsible for the attack.  In years past, arriving at a conclusion regarding culpability occurred rather quickly.  Attacks were either command directed by al Qaeda or perpetrated by an inspired adherent to al Qaeda’s ideology and justifications for violence.  Today, in an era where ISIS has grown to overtake al Qaeda in stature globally, the perpetrator of today’s attack at Charlie Hebdo appears far murkier.  Analysts and journalists should assess four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  1. 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)
  2. An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq
  3. An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West
  4. An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months. 

There could always be a fifth scenario, a completely unaffiliated different ideological movement that wants to attack Charlie Hebdo (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. 

While it remains too early to assess responsibility and events continue to transpire in Paris surrounding the attack, there are some factors and supporting evidence coming in to begin distinguishing between different scenarios.  While I DO NOT know who perpetrated the attack, I am building my own chart to track the possible scenarios and evidence that is leading me to one perpetrator over another.  When assessing jihadi attacks in the West these days, I look at several factors to begin distinguishing perpetrators, which I’ll discuss here.  In government, this might be called a quick and dirty Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH for short). The scenario with the most supporting evidence tends to be the most likely. NOTE: This will evolve throughout the day as more evidence comes in; I have not settled on one perpetrator over the others and I’m still compiling information.  Also, a good ACH takes time and the evidence is weighted and assessed for being confirmed or suspected.  I don’t have time to do that this morning so am just doing an initial draft here

Here are the factors I’m looking for:

  • Reconnaissance: Based on the success of the attack, killing 12 people and the Editor possibly during a morning meeting, I assume a significant reconnaissance was conducted which suggests a well-planned operation more consistent with a directed plot.
  • Targeting Mass/Random vs. Specific: The attackers went after specific people in a specific location, and this is more indicative of a directed plot.
  • Attack Locations – Single vs. Multiple: As of now, there appears to be only one attack location but this might change, or lead to a deliberate standoff. 
  • Weaponry – Advanced vs. Self Provided: The automatic weaponry used suggests access to a sponsor and a deliberate directed plot.  Inspired plots more often involve attackers providing and using their own lower capability weapons.
  • Sponsored Organized Media Release: This will be important in the coming hours. Both ISIS and AQ might try to take credit for the attack, but the timing of responsibility matters.  And, this could be an inspired attack, so maybe a media release will never come. 
  • Propaganda Citing Motive For Attack: While Charlie Hebdo did insult Islam which would be offensive to both groups, they directly insulted ISIS leader Bagdadi, although this may have been too soon before the attack.
  • Suicide Mission/Fight To The Death (FTD) vs. Planned Withdrawal: Generally, inspired attackers seek media attention and want to drag out the incident.  These guys withdrew professionally suggesting a command directed plot. 
  • Size of Attacking Element – Lone Wolf vs Small Cell: Inspired attacks are more often lone wolf plots.  This attack involved at least three perpetrators which suggests an ISIS or AQ directed action.
  • Symbols Present at Scene or Statements of Perpetrators: Little is known at this point, however, some news has trickled out that one of the perpetrators said that “al Qaeda in Yemen” was responsible.  I’m uncertain about the credibility of that claim.
  • Professional vs. Amateur: These guys look professional.  From the video, they handled their weapons well and look experienced, possibly suggesting the presence of a former foreign fighter being involved and leaning towards a directed plot rather than one that was inspired.
  • Foreign Fighter Origin: Very recent reports suggest one of the attackers was speaking Russian!  I am not sure of the credibility of the report, but with the vast number of foreign fighters in ISIS ranks, and the presence of so many Chechens and Caucasuses fighters in ISIS, this leans towards an ISIS command directed attack.

Here is my quick and dirty ACH chart as of 1030.  Note, I provide my assessment of each scenario and what I would expect in black text.  My assessment should definitely be challenged and debated.  I then, in red, pasted #JeSuisCharlie where I’ve seen evidence or potential evidence supporting each assessed factor in the scenario.  I thought this might be a useful tool for those to debate who the perpetrators might be.  More to follow…….

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