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From lone wolf to wolf packs, what Paris says about a new model of terror

Freelancers loosely inspired by Al-Qaeda or ISIL may prove more dangerous than directly sponsored attackers

A recently released video in which one of the gunmen in last week's Paris attacks declares his allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has left French authorities struggling to explain why seemingly coordinated strikes — the worst attacks in France in years — could be affiliated with rival jihadist groups.

In the video, Amedy Coulibaly, who killed five people at a kosher grocery in east Paris, claimed that he was planning his attack alongside Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, the brothers who gunned down 12 people at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo the same day. But Coulibaly’s self-declared affiliation with ISIL appears to be at odds with his apparent accomplices, who had known ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and announced during their fatal standoff with police to have been sent by the Yemen-based franchise, not ISIL.

The complete story behind Coulibaly and the Kouachis may never be known — all three are now dead — but analysts have begun to suspect the men may not have been acting under direct orders from either of these groups. The Kouachis may have received weapons training with AQAP in Yemen several years ago, according to anonymous Yemeni intelligence sources, but experts are skeptical of AQAP’s claims of direct responsibility, which have been inconsistent and come mainly through unofficial channels.

Nor does it seem plausible that AQAP would order an operation involving an ISIL loyalist, given the power struggle playing out between Al-Qaeda and ISIL, which have competed for both funding and recruits ever since they split over leadership disputes in Syria in 2013.

To the question of which group was more likely behind the attacks, Clint Watts, a counterterrorism expert and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., said “the answer likely seems to be neither of them and both." Coulibaly and the Kouachis were probably "inspired by a combination of both groups, but whether they were fully directed in all of their cumulative actions appears unlikely,” Watts wrote in a post for the The War on the Rocks, a publication on national security issues.

If that is indeed the case, the Paris attacks point to a dangerous evolution global jihadism: an acceleration in hard-to-detect lone-wolf or wolf-pack attacks that hinge more on the proliferation of an ideology than actual sponsorship by any group. Among a growing number of extremist cells in the West and elsewhere, “Affiliation with a specific group is being supplanted by affiliation with an ideology,” said the Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy, in a new brief.

This could spell trouble for Western governments, which designed their counterterrorism protocols in the wake of 9/11 to surveil international communication and disrupt organizational structures of foreign cells, Soufan noted. Thwarting the ideology that underpins a global movement will prove more difficult.

The case of the Kouachis highlights these challenges. French intelligence knew of the brothers' connections to AQAP but stopped monitoring Chérif Kouachi in 2013 and Saïd Kouachi in June of 2014, according to various news reports. The French government has not yet offered an official explanation for that, though counterterrorism experts say the pair may have dropped off the radar because they had gone quiet after returning from Yemen, or because surveillance resources had been redirected to monitor the threat posed by ISIL, which counts an estimated 700 French citizens among its ranks in Syria and Iraq.

The Paris attacks will give new life to as-yet-unproven security fears about returned extremist veterans of the wars in Syria and Iraq, even if there is no evidence the Kouachis ever fought in a foreign war. Whereas attacks by ideologically inspired people with zero training tend to be ineffective — such as the recent hostage crisis in Sydney — the Kouachis may be evidence that a far greater threat is posed by radicalized fighters who return from abroad with some weapons training and a web of contacts. Should these individuals join the ranks of cells in their home countries in sizeable numbers, they could "tax even well-equipped [security] services,” particularly if they manage to stay below the legal thresholds for detention,” Soufan said.

Terrorism researchers have long warned that lone-wolf or wolf-pack attackers would be the natural response to Al-Qaeda’s failure since 9/11 to replicate its signature big-shot attacks on the West. Al-Qaeda itself has recognized their value to the movement. Crippled by Western security measures, the Al-Qaeda core has sought to stay relevant by publishing its English-language Inspire magazine, which teaches readers how to make bombs at home and encourages adherents to strike the West whenever and wherever they can. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who carried out the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon in April 2013, were known to have downloaded Inspire.

“The success of the Tsarnaev brothers and now the Kouachi brothers demonstrates that such a spectacular attack may not be needed to seem spectacular to the media,” Watts said. “Both in Boston and now Paris, smaller scale, more conventional attacks informed by Inspire thinking have achieved at low cost what Al-Qaeda has failed to do in almost a decade.”

Whether or not AQAP ordered the Paris attacks, extremist thinkers have long held that this evolution was what Al-Qaeda planned for all along — “a broad-based jihad via a loose social movement,” said Watts. "Today’s jihadi threat, blended between Al-Qaeda and ISIS [another acronym for ISIL], networked by Facebook and evolving based on conditions in hundreds of locations," has the ability to produce attacks on three or more continents on any given day.

But Al-Qaeda and, increasingly, ISIL, will still have to make a strategic decision whether or not to accept credit for such attacks, a risky proposition. If the group claims responsibility for an attack but Western intelligence disproves the connection, they will end up looking weak and may lose prestige in the eyes of their followers. On the other hand, if they don't take credit for inspiring such attacks, sympathetic extremists may seek validation on their own and will “follow their egos instead of global jihadi leaders, creating fledgling jihadi cells and groups at home,” Watts said.

In either case, Soufan predicts an accelerated rate of similar wolf-pack attacks in major cities over the coming years. Small-arms attacks on Western capitals are ripe for copycats, since they are difficult for intelligence agencies to detect, require limited training and draw “inordinately large responses and reactions."

AQAP, for example, is engaged in a protracted and costly struggle for control over territory with the government of Yemen – a conflict has killed more than 2,000 people over the last two years. On Jan. 7, 37 people were killed in a suicide bombing outside a police academy in the capital, Sanaa, their blood splattered across the academy’s walls and streets. But AQAP barely made headlines in the West until a few hours later, when the Paris attackers dropped its name — during an attack the group may have had little to do with.

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