WASHINGTON — The younger of the two brothers who killed 12 people in Paris last week most likely used his older brother’s passport in 2011 to travel to Yemen, where he received training and US$20,000 (S$26,600) from Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, presumably to finance attacks when he returned home to France.
American counterterrorism officials said on Wednesday that they now believed Cherif Kouachi was the aggressor in the attacks — not his elder brother Said Kouachi, as they had first thought — but that Said might also have travelled to Yemen, as the American and French authorities have said.
A fuller portrait of the brothers has emerged as an international effort is focused on determining who might have been behind the attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and what direct role, if any, that Al Qaeda, its affiliates or their bitter rival, the Islamic State, had in planning and ordering the assault.
In a video and written statement, the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen on Wednesday formally claimed responsibility for the deadly assault. It said the target had been chosen by the Al Qaeda leadership, but did not specify which leaders.
If the claim of direct responsibility holds up, it would make the attacks in France the deadliest planned and financed by Al Qaeda on Western soil since the transit bombings in London in 2005 that killed 52 people. It would also serve as a reminder of the continued danger from the group at a time when much of the attention of Europe and the United States has shifted to the Islamic State, the militant organisation that controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq and has become notorious for beheading hostages.
The new information about the Kouachi brothers could help explain what Cherif Kouachi had told a French television station before his death last week; that he had gone to Yemen in 2011, probably through Oman, and was financed by Anwar Awlaki, the American-born cleric who oversaw attacks against the West by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP.
The American authorities now believe Cherif most likely had contact with Awlaki in Yemen, possibly in person.
But it is still unclear what specific guidance the Al Qaeda branch gave the Kouachis about carrying out an attack, though it is believed that the satirical magazine was one of the targets discussed, an American counterterrorism official said.
“I suspect that Cherif Kouachi did engage AQAP members in Yemen, but that he was not fully brought into the organisation,” said Mr Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington. “Perhaps concerned about infiltration by Western agents, AQAP might have offered minimal training, directed the group towards publicly-announced target lists and sent him on his way.”
Mr Fisher added that if that had happened, “AQAP did not exactly direct the attack, but it had some knowledge of the Kouachis and could plausibly try to claim credit”.
The statement by the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen called the Kouachi brothers, who were killed by the police last Friday, “two heroes of Islam”.
But it referred to the actions of Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a police officer and was killed by the police after holding hostages in a kosher supermarket, as a coincidence and did not take responsibility for them.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the US said it had determined that the video clip claiming responsibility was genuine, but that it had not reached a conclusion on whether or not the claims being made in the video were valid.
“The big question that investigators need to look at is, how much of a role did AQAP play in the actual planning in the final stages of this process?” said Mr J M Berger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They could have given these guys money and training three or four years ago, but when they executed it, it could have been done with money (from other sources).”