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Al-Qaeda in Yemen claims attack on France's Charlie Hebdo

Yemen-based militant group said it financed and planned the Paris attacks
Nasser al-Ansi claims AQAP responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack (AFP/AL-MALAHEM MEDIA)

Al-Qaeda in Yemen on Wednesday claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo in a video posted online.

Nasser al-Ansi, one of the chiefs of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said the attack was ordered by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the militant network's overall leader.

"We, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claim responsibility for this operation as vengeance for the Messenger of Allah," Ansi said in the video entitled "A message regarding the blessed battle of Paris."

AQAP was formed in January 2009 as a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al-Qaeda. Washington regards it as the network's most dangerous branch and has carried out a sustained drone war against its leaders.

"The leadership of (AQAP) was the party that chose the target and plotted and financed the plan... It was following orders by our general chief Ayman al-Zawahiri," Ansi said. 

"The heroes were chosen and they answered the call," he said.

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has regularly courted controversy and in the past sparked outrage across the Muslim world by publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.

Ansi referenced a statement by the late chief of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US commandos in May 2011.

"If the freedom of your speech is not restrained, then you should accept the freedom of our actions," he said, while warning of potential attacks in New York, London and Washington.

Analysts said AQAP’s claim of responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack should be treated with caution.

“There is no way to completely verify if the Paris attacks were directed by the AQAP leadership or whether they are opportunistically claiming responsibility for an attack carried out in their name,” said Charlie Winter, a researcher at the anti-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation.

“The contents of the Kouachi brothers’ laptops will be key in establishing whether there is a direct link to AQAP beyond this claim of responsibility,” he added, referring to the two men who carried out the attack in central Paris and were known to have trained with AQAP in Yemen.

“Until today, AQAP has falteringly claimed responsibility for the attacks – first over Twitter then anonymously to the media followed by a fairly ambiguous statement from [AQAP commander Harith bin Ghazi] al-Nadhari. This suggests the attacks weren’t necessarily planned directly by AQAP.”

Despite AQAP claiming to have financed the operation, media reports on Wednesday said the attackers took out a €6,000 loan from French financial services firm Cofidis to pay for weapons.

An illegal arms dealer in Belgium handed himself into police on Tuesday and confessed he had sold Ahmed Coulibaly the Skorpion submachine guns he used to kill four Jewish men at a Kosher supermarket in Paris.

The arms dealer said he also sold Coulibaly, who claimed to be a member of the Islamic State group, the rocket-propelled grenade launcher and Kalashnikov automatic assault rifles used by the Kouachi brothers to kill 12 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Winter explained the claim as a “huge publicity stunt” that “has put AQAP back on the map at a time when al-Qaeda was beginning to disappear from public discourse, usurped by Islamic State.”

In Yemen AQAP are fighting a de facto civil war against the Shiite Houthi movement, which has seized control of the capital Sana’a and controls large swathes of the country.

While the group’s focus has recently been on the domestic battle, Winter said “the group is facing a crisis of legitimacy in terms of their standing on the global jihadist spectrum.”

“Islamic State have really been strongly attacking them lately, in a number of statements, and in that sense within AQAP there will have been a feeling of needing to reassert themselves,” he said.

AQAP recently called for its supporters to carry out attacks in France, which is part of a US-led coalition conducting air strikes against militants from IS in Iraq and Syria.

The claim of responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack coincided with the return of the satirical magazine to newsstands amid unprecedented demand that saw the paper print five million copies.

The new issue features another cartoon of Mohammed on its cover, with tears in his eyes, holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign under the headline "All is forgiven".