The recent terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris shook France and made headlines worldwide. While the attacks were undoubtedly a terrible crime, much of the anxiety that has emerged from the attacks is misplaced. Here are three key points to keep in mind.
1. The Charlie Hebdo Attack is not a “Typical” Terrorist Attack in Europe
There are very few Muslim terrorist attacks in Europe. The latest European Union (EU) Terrorism and Trend Report reported that of the 152 terrorist attacks in the EU in 2013 only two were “religiously motivated.” The majority of attacks were committed by separatist or ethno-nationalist groups. These include, for example, the detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Northern Ireland and Corsica (France). There have also been left-wing terrorist attacks in Greece, Spain, and Italy. Of course there have been very destructive terrorist attacks committed by Islamic militant groups in Europe but these are relatively rare.
Globally-speaking the greatest number of terrorist attacks currently occur in South Asia and the Middle East. This has not always been the case — in previous decades Latin America or even Western Europe were on top. ISIS has brought Iraq to the top of the list. Of course it is primarily Muslims who are the victims of these attacks. While militant “Islamist” groups must be monitored by intelligence, border control, and law enforcement agencies, these groups do not pose a statistically significant threat to the average citizen in European countries. The potential rise of racism and xenophobia across the continent is a much graver threat to European democracy than isolated incidents of Islamic extremist violence.
2. The Motivations for Terrorist Attacks are Multifaceted
It is unhelpful to imagine terrorists as being irrational and motivated primarily by hate. The overarching goals of groups like Al Qaeda are political and ideological but individual motivation is variable. In the case of Charlie Hebdo the motivations of both the individual attackers and the group with which they were affiliated (which still has yet to be firmly established) are also not necessarily synonymous. Charlie Hebdo is a newspaper known for its provocative satirical critique of Islam (among other things) and it is likely that the attackers targeted the paper for this reason. The paper had previously been firebombed in 2011, and in March 2013, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) named Editor Stéphane Charbonnier in a “hit list” published in their English language magazine “Inspire.” In spite of this seemingly clear motive the attack must also be situated within broader ideological and instrumental objectives.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo, like anarchist bombings around the turn of the 20th century, is “propaganda of the deed” — an exemplary action of violence intended to underscore an ideological message and to inspire others. One could also argue that the attack is also an attempt by Al Qaeda to maintain its relevance in the face of the rise of rival groups such as ISIS. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has asserted responsibility for the attack, claiming that it was organized by American-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Reportedly al-Awlaki was in contact with the perpetrators Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi before he was himself killed by an American drone strike in 2011.
In claiming responsibility for the attack AQAP denied the involvement of Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out the subsequent attack on a Kosher grocery and claimed to have contributed to the planning for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Coulibaly left behind a videotaped confession praising ISIS, and AQAP was likely reluctant to attribute an ISIS supporter with any central role in the attacks. Whether this was a case of Al Qaeda and ISIS once again working together or whether it was simply a way to assert Al Qaeda’s authorship of the attack is unknown at this point.
What is clear is that Al Qaeda and ISIS have had an uneasy relationship ever since ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared his intention to merge with the Al Qaeda affiliated group Al Nusra Front in Syria in 2013. Due to its operational successes and its ability to hold territory (and declare a Caliphate) ISIS has garnered far more international attention over the past two years than Al Qaeda. This declining relevance directly challenges Al Qaeda’s assumption of global Islamic legitimacy as well as its power to recruit young would-be jihadis.
Groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS both subscribe to an ideology of global struggle against a satanic foe. In such a struggle there is no measure of compromise, no victory outside of total victory. It is this totality that also contributes to the perception among many in the West that terrorism is incomprehensible and ubiquitous. The Paris attacks were symbolically an attack on the “enemies of Islam.” In this sense, the attackers probably sought to punish the cartoonists and writers of Charlie Hebdo for their perceived blasphemy rather than to effect a change in French policy towards its Muslim minority or hate speech. Of course militant Islamist groups recognize no right of free speech: according to their binary worldview individuals who speak contrary to their particular iteration of Islam are evil and lie outside of the moral community.
Both the attackers and the policeman who was killed by the attackers were French-born, ethnic Algerians. In fact, of the approximately six million Muslims in France, more than 80 percent are Algerian-origin. There is a history of Algerian militancy in France but this history is embedded in the Algerian anti-colonial struggle through which the French state committed mass atrocities against Algerians including the systematic use of torture, extrajudicial executions, and the murder (by police) of hundreds of Algerian protestors in Paris. Even today Algerians in France remain second-class citizens facing economic and political discrimination that prevents them from enjoying the full range of their human rights. The Charlie Hebdo attackers emerged from context although it is unknown if this was a motivation behind the recent attacks or whether the attacks were also aimed at France’s support for the battle against ISIS or recent French foreign interventions against violent Islamist groups in North Africa and the Sahel.
3. The Backlash to Acts of Terrorism is more Important than the Act Itself
Finally, the power of terrorism lies less in its murderous initial effect than in the aftershocks reverberating through cultural and political life. The Charlie Hebdo attack will have little effect on free speech or democratic discourse in France or elsewhere, rather it stands the danger of contributing to the rising tide of xenophobia across Europe. Ironically, although the attackers did not succeed in shutting down Charlie Hebdo, French prosecutors have charged more than 60 people with speech “supporting terrorism” since the attack.
The attacks have widely, and understandably, been condemned as barbaric. Unfortunately this barbarous label is sometimes applied not only to the acts of the terrorists but to all Muslims. Paradoxically, Al Qaeda’s discourse of civilizational struggle has been mirrored in some responses to the attacks. The West is not threatened by barbarians but rather by extremist individuals and organizations. Our response must be intelligent and proportionate. It must address these groups through appropriate law enforcement and intelligence-gathering, in a way which continues to uphold basic human rights protections. Security paradigms which collectivize blame through racial/ethnic/religious profiling will further marginalize minorities and such marginalization provides a more fertile recruitment ground for extremist and criminal groups of all types.
There has been a wave of Islamophobic attacks across France since the Charlie Hebdo shooting — more than 50 in the last week. When militant groups operate from an ethnic or religious extremism rather than a non-sectarian political ideology it is easier to collectivize blame. The further ethnic and religious polarisation of France and other European countries serves the purposes of Al Qaeda.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks provoked a great deal of fear and anger — this was the intention of the attackers. Through “Je Suis Charlie,” outrage has been transformed into unity. Yet there is a danger that this unity also contains the seeds of us/them thinking of further intolerance.
Rather than giving into narrow thinking the best response to such an act of violence may be to take repose from righteous anger to recognize our common humanity once again.