A CNN affiliate in France, BMFTV, interviewed Cherif Kouachi, one of two brothers responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s offices, before he was killed earlier today. A BMFTV journalist reportedly talked to Cherif via phone while he and his brother were holed up at a printing factory.
“We are just telling you that we are the defenders of Prophet Mohammed,” Cherif Kouachi told the journalist, according to CNN. “I was sent, me, Cherif Kouachi, by al Qaeda in Yemen. I went there and Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki financed my trip.”
Asked to explain when he met with Awlaki, Cherif said “a while ago.” Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike in late September 2011.
An audio recording of BMFTV‘s interview with Cherif has been released online, but CNN says it has not independently verified its authenticity.
Earlier, Reuters reported that the other Kouachi brother, Said, is also suspected of having ties to Awlaki. Citing “a senior Yemeni intelligence source,” Reuters reported that Said met with Awlaki during his stay in Yemen in 2011.
Said’s putative meeting with Awlaki has not yet been publicly confirmed by US officials.
American officials have told the press, however, that Said is thought to have trained in an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) camp during his visit to Yemen in 2011. Citing a “senior American official” who spoke with the media, The New York Times reported that Said trained for “a few months” on small arms. CNN added that it “is also possible Said was trained in bomb making, a common jihadist training in Yemen.”
The possible ties between AQAP and the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo were reported in the first hours after the attack. “You can tell the media that it’s al Qaeda in Yemen,” one of the terrorists said during the assault, according to a witness cited in the press. “Al Qaeda in Yemen” is a reference to AQAP, al Qaeda’s official branch in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
A French official who briefed the press shortly after the attack also claimed that the terrorists are “linked to a Yemeni terrorist network.”
In the past, AQAP has explicitly threatened Charlie Hebdo and its editor-in-chief, Stephane Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack. The 10th issue of AQAP’s Inspire magazine, which was released in early 2013, includes a “Wanted” poster that is headlined, “Dead or Alive For Crimes Against Islam.” The poster is intended to encourage followers to shoot 11 people, all of whom have supposedly offended Islam. One of them is Charbonnier.
And in the very first edition of Inspire magazine in 2010, Anwar al Awlaki called for jihadists to attack cartoonists who had supposedly smeared the legacy of the Prophet Mohammed.
Separately, BMFTV was also in contact today with Amedy Coulibaly, who was not involved in the assault on Charlie Hebdo, but is suspected of killing a Paris police officer and holding hostages at a kosher market.
Coulibaly apparently did not mention any ties to AQAP, but did say he was a member of the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that claims to rule over parts of Iraq and Syria as a “caliphate.” Coulibaly also claimed that he had coordinated his actions with the Kouachi brothers.
It is not clear at this point if Coulibaly had any ties to the Islamic State, or was simply claiming an affiliation.
AQAP and the Islamic State are bitter rivals. The two jihadist groups have engaged in a war of words in recent months.
In mid-November, the emir of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, announced that his “caliphate” had expanded into Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In the process, Baghdadi claimed, the authority of all other existing jihadist groups had been superseded. Baghdadi’s announcement was a direct, ideological attack on AQAP.
AQAP’s ideologues have responded by arguing that the Islamic State is not a true caliphate and lacks the religious authority to rule as one. AQAP has also released a series of messages that are supportive of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.