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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 been well-known to the French police. Cherif was arrested in January 2005 and convicted three years later in connection with a recruitment ring that planned to send French residents to fight for al Qaeda in Iraq. At the time, Cherif thanked the police for preventing him from going to Iraq, but his regrets may not have been sincere. In May 2010, he was arrested again in connection with a plot to free two well-known French-Algerian jihadists, Djamel Beghal and Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, the perpetrators of the 1995 Paris Métro bombings.
It is not necessarily contradictory to say that the attackers were from AQAP and that they had picked up their skills in Syria, where most fighters are presumed to be allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or smaller al Qaeda–affiliated groups. The Yemen-based AQAP is known to have sent fighters to Syria. And al Qaeda, facing competitive pressure from ISIS, was surely desperate for a victory. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the killings in France could be an attempt to remind the world that al Qaeda is still relevant.
Indeed, some commentators had predicted just such an outcome and had even gone so far as to say that al Qaeda faced sure decline with ISIS on the scene. But the U.S. government was never keen to discount the al Qaeda threat. And the reality is that the rise of one organization is not tantamount to the decline of the other. Rather, today there are simply far more trained killers, from more groups, on the loose in western Europe than at any previous time in al Qaeda’s 20-year history of menacing the West.
This particular attack fits well within the old al Qaeda playbook. The organization, specifically AQAP, has made the assassination of cartoonists its special beat. In 2011, the senior al Qaeda figure Anwar al-Awlaki issued an online sermon titled “The Dust Will Never Settle Down,” telling his adherents to take matters in their own hands and kill cartoonists who offended the Prophet. The video has been linked to a large number of attacks and threats against Western individuals perceived to have defamed the Prophet. In March 2013, Inspire, the online magazine published by AQAP, featured a Wanted poster listing the enemies of the Prophet. Hebdo’s editor in chief, Stéphane Charbonnier, was on the list. He was among those killed on Wednesday.
Even the template for the Hebdo attack was nauseatingly familiar. Emerging details suggest that the assassins might have had inside information about the operations and layout of Hebdo’s office, which they used to know exactly where to show up and when. That sort of detailed preparation is the hallmark of an al Qaeda–directed operation, as opposed to “homegrown” attacks that often fail because of the incompetence of the plotters. In 2009 and 2010, authorities foiled similar plots to storm the editorial offices of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper responsible for originally publishing the controversial cartoons of Muhammad. David Coleman Headley (born Daood Sayed Gilani), a Chicago-based American citizen who also conducted advance scouting for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, traveled twice to Denmark to help plan the Jyllands-Posten plot. A second attempt to attack the newspaper was made in December 2010. In this case, the assassins were Swedish residents who had been under surveillance for some time.
The difference today is the skill with which the attacks were carried out. France has seen a number of such incidents perpetrated by individuals who have left the country to fight abroad and then returned home to apply their skills on domestic “soft” targets.
For example, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old man from Toulouse whose family has deep roots in the French extremist milieu, targeted French soldiers of Muslim origin and a Jewish school in a series of killings in March 2012. Reminiscent of this week’s attack, Merah’s attacks were executed with precision and skill. He filmed them, intending to post the videos online. (French authorities prevented this from happening.) Mehdi Nemmouche, also a French veteran from the insurgency in Syria, carried out a precise attack on pedestrians at a Jewish museum in May last year. He, too, filmed the attack for later distribution. The Hebdo shooters apparently did not film themselves, and online jihadists quickly took to Twitter, bemoaning the absence of footage. They need not worry. Bystanders using their cell phones to film and post videos have already flooded social media.
This week, the war with the jihadists ratcheted up. And much of the media reacted in fear. The Associated Press quickly removed all content from its website featuring pictures of Hebdo’s pages. It is safe to expect the managers and owners of other publishing companies and the news media to follow suit. But that is the wrong reaction. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and any number of other groups continue their war against the West, but there is not a trained team of assassins from al Qaeda lurking in every parking lot. The French are right. It was a unique attack. The proper response to the challenge of transnational terrorism is to increase domestic security and information sharing among governments about citizens traveling to Syria and Iraq. Europe’s open borders require a security infrastructure to match.