France on Fire

The Charlie Hebdo Attack and the Future of al Qaeda

A vigil in New York, January 7, 2015. Carlo Allegri / Courtesy Reuters

Early on January 7, masked gunmen stormed the editorial office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. The death toll may still rise. The attack coincided with an editorial meeting at the paper, with key staffers assembled. According to eyewitness reports, the perpetrators forced their way into a back office, calling out the names of the editor and cartoonists before shooting them. The assassins, presumed to be al Qaeda members, escaped.

The death toll makes this week’s attack the most significant on French soil since the Nazi occupation—a huge milestone in al Qaeda’s campaign against the West. It is part of a long line of plots to kill media figures for their symbolic value in the West as paragons of free speech and to some Muslims as examples of the evil of secularism. For the terrorists, the staff of Hebdo were particularly appealing targets, since it was one of the few European papers that, in the wake of the 2009 Danish cartoon episode, continued to publish irascible cartoons of Muhammad, ridiculing the pieties of extremist Islamists. In fact, the paper’s editorial office had already been firebombed in 2011, after it published a special “Muhammad issue” ostensibly featuring the Muslim Prophet as guest editor. Ongoing threats to the paper were public and well-known.

The French line on the attack is that it was a unique incident carried out by professional terrorists, assumed to have learned their skills in Syria. The three men identified by the French police as the gunmen are the stuff of French nightmares. All three spoke in French, and, exiting the scene of their crime, they told bystanders to tell the media that they came from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One member of the cell, Hamyd Mourad, is just 18 and is said to have attended high school in the northern city of Reims. The other two are brothers—Said Kouachi, who is 34, and Cherif Kouachi, who is 32. The Kouachi brothers would have

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