During Said Kouachi’s travels through Yemen, he received weapons training at an Al Qaeda-run camp, studied at a university other high-profile terrorist suspects have attended and communicated with Anwar Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who at a time topped the CIA’s most-wanted list, a senior Yemeni official has told the Toronto Star.
None of this was known then, in 2011, when Yemen was consumed with protests that eventually ousted longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Kouachi managed to enter the country illegally and stay off the radar.
Nor did he appear to raise any red flags in the three years since — an intelligence gap French authorities are under pressure to explain.
The devastating attack on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo Wednesday, however, has prompted security agencies worldwide to focus on the pasts of 34-year-old Kouachi and his younger brother Cherif, 32, in an effort not only to discover what went wrong, but to detect any further threats.
Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was once considered the greatest threat until overshadowed this past year by the self-declared Islamic State and its cadre of foreign adherents vowing to fight abroad and at home.
The Yemen investigation confirmed that Said Kouachi had travelled there in 2011 and received light arms and field training at a rural camp run by Al Qaeda in Abida, a city in Yemen’s eastern Marib province, the Yemeni intelligence official told the Toronto Star Saturday on the condition of anonymity.
They believe he entered the country illegally either with false documents or coming from a neighbouring country since there is no record of his arrival — and France had reportedly not alerted Yemeni officials of his possible travel.
And although the exact dates of his arrival and departure are unknown, Yemeni authorities believe Kouachi was in the country in early 2011 but left soon after Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in September of that year.
“Kouachi was part of the terrorist cell that Awlaki was responsible for — the international operations outside of Yemen for AQAP,” the official said, although he did not provide details about any direct communication between the two.
Before the Kouachi brothers were killed Friday while they fired upon a team of French special forces, Cherif Kouachi spoke with a France television station, saying he was sent by Yemen’s Al Qaeda. But the official said they had not confirmed whether Cherif was also in the country.
In addition to attending a training camp, Said Kouachi also reportedly spent a short time — about two weeks — studying at Al Iman University in the capital Sanaa.
The university was founded by Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a controversial spiritual leader who is listed by the U.S. as “specially designated global terrorist.”
During interviews in Sanaa with the Toronto Star in 2009, and again in 2011, Zindani denied any links to terrorism or support for AQAP.
But the university has come under frequent scrutiny since it was revealed that John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, had once been a student.
Awlaki also gave lectures in 2004 and 2005 — the same time Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who later became known as the “underwear bomber” for his failed attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009 — was purportedly also a student.
Whether there was any connection to the university or not, it appears Yemen’s circle of foreign militants is small.
The New York Times reported Saturday that Kouachi had met Abdulmutallab while in Yemen’s capital. Yemeni journalist Mohammed Al-Kibsi told the Times that he came across Kouachi in Sanaa while researching an article on Abdulmutallab. Kouachi said they had been friends and lived together for a week or two in the fall of 2009, before Abdulmutallab was arrested.
Kibsi described Kouachi as “so friendly” and said he ran into him at least two other times at Arabic language institutes in Sanaa’s old city district.
Although new information about the Kouachi brothers and their ties to Amedy Coulibaly — a third member of the French terror group who fatally shot a female police officer Thursday and who was also killed Friday — reveal the terrorists deep roots and connections, many questions remain.
It is unknown whether Kouachi kept contact with AQAP or its members after Awlaki was killed. AQAP allegedly claimed credit for the attacks on Friday, saying they had directed the operation.
But Charlie Hebdo has long been a target for Al Qaeda groups — its publisher Stephane Charbonnier, who was among those killed Wednesday, was included on a hit list published in AQAP’s propaganda magazine “Inspire” in 2013. But no evidence has yet uncovered specific support or direction for France’s attack, despite AQAP’s claim otherwise.
Questions also remain about any connections between the attacks in France and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or by its Arabic name Daesh.
Various reports have said one or more of the men travelled to Syria, and Couilibaly told the French television station he was attacking in the name of ISIS.
Although many of the goals of the groups are the same, the creation of ISIS last year caused a rift among various Al Qaeda groups.
AQAP, whose leader Nasir al Wuhayshi holds the number two position in Al Qaeda after Ayman al Zawahiri, denounced ISIS in November, saying the group had gone too far in terms of its violence and declaration of a caliphate.