On Wednesday 7 January, 12 people were murdered when French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was targeted by gunmen purportedly claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida (one of the gunman apparently specified al-Qaida in Yemen). The attackers were well-armed and appeared well-trained. Upon shooting dead their final victim – a policeman – they declared triumphantly: ‘We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo’. A man-hunt to bring the killers to justice is underway.
French authorities have published the identities of the suspected shooters: brothers Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34. They were born in Paris to Algerian immigré parents. Cherif was known to French authorities as a member of the ’19th arrondissement network’ of north African-linked extremists. In 2008, he was sentenced to three years in prison for facilitating fighters from France to the jihadist theatre in Iraq. We will learn more in the days to come about the gunmen, their associates and their motivations.
However, even with limited information, we can make a number of key judgements as we consider the implications of this event:
- This incident should not be thought of as a ‘lone wolf’ attack or the terrorists as simply ‘home-grown’. Yes, the Kouachi brothers are French and it might well be the case that they carried out this attack in the name of al-Qaida without having received formal direction or sanction by senior al-Qaida figures. However, the effectiveness of the attack and the competence of the attackers indicates that they are connected to a real-world (rather than virtual) jihadist network, which provided them with the training, experience and confidence to plan and execute a sophisticated attack.
- In recent times, established and wannabe jihadists have made a point of declaring affiliation to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (commonly known as ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State) rather than al-Qaida. The fact, if true, that the attackers announced themselves as members of al-Qaida, specifically al-Qaida in Yemen, is significant. This attack serves as a reminder to us all that externally-focused al-Qaida groups and networks are very much alive despite our pre-occupation with ISIL, and that the Syria/Iraq jihadist theatre is providing operating space and manpower to a number of terrorist networks intent on harming the West that operate independently of ISIL.
- It’s worth noting that for several years, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been calling on ‘self-starters’ to launch attacks in the West through their propaganda, including their slick online magazine Inspire. Their external operations wing has actively sought operatives with access to Western targets to conduct attack-planning on its behalf. Prior to ISIL’s recent emergence as a champion for global jihadists, AQAP had positioned itself as the vanguard group within the official al-Qaida network, in contrast to an AQ Core operating in survival mode.
- The ‘foreign fighter problem’, which I recently wrote about here, doesn’t just apply to the recent wave of fighters who have travelled to Syria to join the ranks of ISIL. The Kouachi brothers represent an older generation of fighters that underscore the depth and complexity of the foreign fighter problem. Overlapping and inter-weaving transnational jihadist networks have the power to produce capable, self-organised terrorists that are harder to detect and disrupt than defined and often territorially-fixed terrorist hierarchies.
- The fact that the gunmen are brothers is reflective of a fundamental driver of terrorism that is probably the most difficult to address: the social networks that push and pull individuals towards extremist ideology and violence. Family ties are strong and powerful; jihadist ideologues exploit these connections to influence, radicalise and recruit others for terrorist purposes.
- The brothers’ announcement of having ‘avenged the Prophet Muhammad’ is in line with the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ rationale that is a common theme in jihadist doctrine. The challenge for French society, and all of us who care about democracy and freedom of expression, is to create social networks that undermine the power of extremists and extremist ideology, so as to reduce the risk of violence as a response to issues – such as satirical cartoons – that have the potential to offend.
Unfortunately, the heinous attack on Charlie Hebdo is a sign of things to come. Terrorism risks across Europe are heightening. The maths are straightforward:
- If we assume threat = intent + capability, then the increasing numbers of people attracted by the global jihadist agenda who are able to gain training, experience and confidence in terrorist operating spaces such as in Syria means that the threat will inevitably go up.
- If we assume risk = threat + vulnerability, then the increasing numbers of capable and radicalised foreign fighters, affiliated with a group or ideology but neither tasked nor directed by a terrorist hierarchy, who are able to self-organise means that it is harder for counter-terrorism authorities to detect and disrupt attack-planning.
The key, therefore, beyond focusing on resilience and taking steps to increase intelligence coverage and CT capacity overseas, is to do some hard thinking on what we need to do to prevent people from engaging in terrorism and how to effectively counter violent extremism through a wide spectrum of policy responses, including counter-terrorism measures that tackle extremist recruiters and influencers. This will be the subject of Contest Global’s next post.
By Chris Mackmurdo Founding Director of Contest Global www.contestglobal.com