The attack on the office of the Paris satirical weekly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ seized the attention of European even as we were becoming accustomed to a seemingly never-ending series of terror stories. The worst terrorism attack in France in more than half a century was so audacious that it stopped ordinary people in Europe and around the world in their tracks in horror and in sympathy. Now that the initial shock is over, how should Europe and the international community respond?
The prominent Somali-born American activist and former Dutch politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali Ali is a provocative and outspoken commentator but most would agree with her comments about the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ phenomenon and particularly about the nature of the threat that we are facing. “We do need to wake up to the fact that there is a movement – a very lethal movement, very cruel – that has a political vision about how the world should be organised and how society should live,” she wrote. “And in order for them to realise their vision, they are willing to use any means. They are willing to use violence. They are willing to use terror.”
Where Ali becomes markedly more controversial is when she links the ideas behind Jihadi terrorism to the teachings of Islam itself when she writes, “Is this some kind of cult? Or are the principles of this cult embedded in Islam? I happen to think they are embedded in Islam.” Many commentaries around the world over the past few days have reflected this divide. Many have spoken out in parallel with Ali, sheeting the problem home to Islam and, by implication, the Muslim community. Others have argued that this is exactly the response the terrorists are seeking to provoke.
What is at stake here is too important to be left either to esoteric debate or to dogma. How we respond, based on how we understand what is happening, will very much shape what happens after this. There are no simple ways of guaranteeing the safety of our society against the sort of attacks that we saw in Paris. But our attitudes and actions will very much play into how things develop. Ali is correct in recognising the murderous nature of the determined political movements we are dealing with, and she is correct to acknowledge that they claim to act in the name of Islam regardless of whether most Muslims feel they have any right to do so.
What are we really looking at? We now know quite a bit about the two gunmen, thirty-four-year-old Said Kouachi and thirty-two-year-old Cherif Kouachi and also about their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly, also thirty-two. Both Kouachi brothers were well-known to French authorities, and it’s been revealed that both trained with al Qaeda in Yemen.. What they did last Wednesday was fulfilment of an assassination call put out in March 2013 by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular in its English-language magazine ‘Inspire’.
Cherif’s links with terrorism go back even longer than his older brother’s involvement. Arrested in January 2005, charged with assisting in sending French nationals to fight alongside al Qaeda in Iraq, Cherif then remained in detention until October 2006. It was during the three years later spent in a jail that Cherif formed a friendship with Coulibaly. Over the past decade, Cherif showed unwavering commitment to the cause of al Qaeda. When he got out of prison, though initially showing signs of returning to mainstream society, his lawyer characterized him at that time as “an apprentice ‘loser,’ […] a clueless kid who did not know what to do with his life, and overnight, met people who gave him the impression he was important.”
The Kouachis, Coulibaly and the latter’s partner, Boumeddiene, were all members of the Buttes Chaumont Group, an extremist network meeting in a district on the northeast edge of Paris that is home to many immigrants from Algeria and Morocco. They were taught at the Addawa Mosque by the charismatic young preacher Farid Benyettou. For years the group had talked about attacking Jewish sites in Paris. On many of these points, the story of the Kouachi brothers parallels that of the Tsarnaev brothers, who in April 2013 attacked on instructions in ‘Inspire’ to bomb the Boston Marathon. Their story also has much in common with those of other French nationals who have returned from fighting in the Middle East to conduct murderous attacks in Europe.
In May 2014 Mehdi Nammouche walked into a Jewish Museum in Brussels and opened fire with a Kalashnikov, shooting dead four people. The twenty-nine-year-old Algerian-French Nemmouche had just returned from fighting with jihadi militia opposing the Assad regime in Syria. Two years earlier, in March 2012, twenty-three-year-old Mohamed Merah went on a fortnight-long rampage in Toulouse and Montauban, shooting dead three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French soldiers with a pistol before dying himself in a violent confrontation with police. Like Nemmouche, Merah was born in France of Algerian parents and was a disturbed young man with an extensive history of criminality and links with jihadi groups. Importantly, both of them are believed to have become radicalised while serving time in prison.
All these bloody attacks share some common characteristics: They involved the cold, calculated, deadly use of military firearms by radicalised young men who had trained or fought with terrorists abroad, and who did not immediately seek the attention of the media. These young men, struggling with a sense of alienation and unable to find meaningful employment, had drifted into a life of petty crime and confrontation with police, had been radicalised by charismatic mentors, and then travelled abroad to fight. Coulibaly’s actions appear to have been encouraged by articles in Islamic State’s English-language online magazine ’Dabiq’. Much like ’Inspire’ published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, IS’ ’Dabiq’, published monthly since July 2014, has also called on its readers to mount improvised attacks without wide consultation or elaborate plotting using whatever weapons come to hand.
Just as the lives of these troubled men follow a similar pattern, so too does their attraction to the redemptive narrative of al Qaeda and Islamic State – the belief that by launching a terror attack they could, in effect, go from “zero to hero.” Their exploits have been recounted in ’Inspire’ and ’Dabiq’, which have declared that these “martyrs” have their sins wiped away and have found pleasure in the eyes of God and His people. A motive of seeking of affirmation and redemption also seem to be behind the shooting of Corporal Nathan Cirillo by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau at the Canadian National War Memorial on 22 October last year, and the killing two days earlier in Montreal of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent by Muslim convert Martin Coutre-Rouleau. Also one or more of three unrelated attacks involving attacks with knives and cars in central and eastern France in late December last year might have been motivated by a similar desire to act in the name of jihadi terrorism.
Meanwhile, communities across Europe seem more polarized on this issue than ever before: like Ali, far right Dutch politician Geert Wilders and his French political associate Marine Le Pen vigorously assert that Islamist extremism and terrorism is innately linked to the teachings of Islam. French president Francois Hollande, however, speaking in the wake of the attacks, has taken an opposite position: “These fanatics, those terrorists, having nothing to do with Islam.” The rhetoric of politicians, left or right, tends to be simplistic but the numbers support Hollande’s assertion. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe – estimated at around 9 percent or 5 to 6 million – and it has hundreds thousands of young Muslims struggling to find satisfactory employment, many who report encountering prejudice and experiencing alienation, but only a very small proportion are drawn to radical Islamism.
The fact that as many as 70 per cent of all inmates in French prisons are Muslims is a stark reminder of the troubles experienced by many young French Muslims. More than 1,000 young French nationals have left to join Islamic State, or al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria and Iraq. Thousands more are supportive of jihadi groups in the Middle East and Northern Africa. These absolute numbers make the task of keeping extremists under surveillance very challenging. But they remain on the fringes of the society – a small fraction of one per cent and not at all representative of France’s 5 million Muslims
While the fear of Islam displayed by politicians of the far right is clearly excessive and prejudicial there is no escaping the fact that a small but significant minority of Muslims hold to a very toxic understanding of Islam. No religion or worldview is entirely free from a toxic fringe that clings parasitically to the mainstream and perverts its beliefs, but at this point in history it is a particularly virulent scourge in Muslim society. This is not the fault of ordinary Muslims. Nor is it their problem alone. If the events in Paris teach us anything, it is that we are all in this together. This is something that, together, we all have to deal with.