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Blowback in Paris

Recognising that the Paris atrocity is predictable blowback, does not absolve the perpetrators of responsibility for their terrible crimes; but it might help us find a path to safety

At least 12 people were killed in the shocking terrorist murders in Paris, among them 10 staff at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine whose offices were targeted, and two police officers.

The Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen, who were also armed with pump-action shotguns, shouted "Allahu Akbar" as they entered the magazine’s office to embark on their killing spree, proclaiming “The Prophet is avenged” after the massacre.

These are the worst attacks France has endured in decades – perhaps the worst in Europe since the 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Breivik. In 1995, a Paris commuter train was bombed by Algerian terrorists, killing eight and wounding 119.

Eyewitness Corrine Rey, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, said the attackers “spoke French perfectly” and claimed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. According to another eyewitness, one of the hooded black-garbed gunmen told a passerby that they were from “Al-Qaeda in Yemen”.

Terrorists and their motives

This may not seem much to go on, but if accurate, these reports could be important indicators as to the perpetrators and their motives.

If the attackers spoke French perfectly, then the probability is that they are longtime French residents. That sort of ability to speak a language with undetectable flaws can only come from the familiarity of time. That means the gunmen, whatever their ethnicity, were most likely French.

In that case, what about their reported claim to be al-Qaeda in Yemen – a claim which, if it occurred, the terrorists clearly hoped would be broadcast widely? The claim is a reference to "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" (AQAP), also known as Ansar al-Shari’ah, which was first formed in 2009 by the merger of al-Qaeda factions in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Just one month after US-led airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) targets across Iraq and Syria, and a week after President Barack Obama’s announcement of an extended military campaign, AQAP issued an extraordinary joint declaration of unity with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the al-Qaeda network in North Africa. The joint AQAP and AQIM statement called for support of ISIS, and for Islamist factions in Iraq and Syria to unite against the West. Whatever the intentions behind the statement, it proved that the US-led military intervention was already provoking elements of the fractured global jihadist movement to coalesce around the IS insurgency.

The stated aim of the intervention, of course, was to reduce the threat of terrorism posed by IS which, if “left unchecked” would pose “a growing threat” to the US homeland and countries in Europe. The latter, Obama said justifying the need for military action, could be subjected to “deadly attacks” from American and European nationals returning home after having traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.

Yet, Obama’s own intelligence assessments were adamant that IS posed “no imminent threat” to homeland security beyond the region. The joint AQAP-AQIM statement in support of IS that emerged a week after the decision to launch an extended intervention showed that the main factor motivating Islamist fighters to begin attacking targets in the US and Europe was the new military campaign.

Escalating risk

Sure enough, in the weeks and months after the first airstrikes against IS in August 2014, western intelligence agencies issued alert after alert on the mounting threat of terrorist attacks that, previously, officials had discounted as a likely danger. Rather than ameliorating the danger, the US-led military campaign had accelerated it to the point of making an impending terrorist attack virtually inevitable.

By late September, senior EU officials portended that a major terrorist attack on Europe linked to IS “is pre-programmed”, and that the risk of an atrocity could “already be out of control” as domestic authorities struggle to cope with the influx of returning European IS fighters. Then IS issued a statement circulated widely on social media, urging its followers worldwide to target the France and French people due to their involvement in the military intervention against IS.

The next month, the British Foreign Office warned that ongoing threats to Paris from Islamist groups meant there was a “high threat” of terrorism, particularly in the form of “indiscriminate attacks”.

That warning was prescient. The last weekend of December 2014 saw three separate ‘lone-wolf’ attacks on police and civilians by French nationals supportive of IS, underscoring that the threat to France was fast escalating. Other attacks that had been foiled by French intelligence in the preceding weeks and months were all attempted by “individuals who had returned to France or had never left the country.”

Military training

Unlike other attacks, though, the perpetrators of the 7 January Paris massacre were most likely professionals. They executed their operation calmly and with ruthless efficiency, including the murders of two armed French police officers, and the evasion of a comprehensive manhunt by police and intelligence units. The considered use of single and double shots, and the careful timing to coincide with the magazine’s editorial meeting, demonstrated a degree of tactical expertise hinting at people who had received military training, rather than self-radicalised lone-wolf attackers inspired solely by social media.

But eyewitnesses also said that the terrorists had trouble finding the location of the target, accessed the building by chance and then entered via the wrong staircase – indicating that they had not completed thorough reconnaissance, or fully rehearsed the operation.

All these facts are most consistent with the conclusion that the attackers were amateurs who had, however, been groomed and recruited by extremists affiliated with a nexus of Islamists connected to AQIM, AQAP and IS – or even all three, and had in that capacity been able to receive ad hoc terrorist training.

Intelligence failure?

According to French publications, police sources had by the evening already fully identified the perpetrators as “French-Algerian”, and knew their names and birthdates, before reportedly arresting them in a terror raid in Reims, eastern France, where the suspects lived. Two of the men had according to these reports returned to France from Syria last summer. If true, the French sources show that the gunmen had been on the radar of French intelligence for years. Police officials told Le Point that in 2008, one of the gunmen was tied to an Iraqi network in Paris that had been encouraging young men to join militants in Iraq and Syria. A court trial that year indicated that the network – seemingly linked to Islamist extremists who planted the seeds of what became ISIS – had been extensively monitored by French intelligence. The same man had also previously been arrested in 2005 when he attempted to travel to Damascus.

At that time, there had been no intelligence suggesting this network linked to “al-Qaeda in Iraq” had any plans to attack French targets, especially as France’s position at that time was opposition to the Iraq War. This, however, changed dramatically last year in the wake of France’s decision to join the coalition against IS. In the wake of the intensifying terror alerts, the internal danger to Paris from the same domestic network linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq should have been an obvious focus for French intelligence.

The question that will soon be asked as further facts emerge, is how was this network of Islamists – linked to the very group that went on to spawn IS – able to expand on French soil with impunity over the last decade?

Islamic State is desperate

But is France’s involvement in the war on IS the only motive for the terrorists? Why not Britain, or the US, which are leading the military campaign?

The targeting of Charlie Hebdo signifies, along with the trend of recent Islamist terrorist attacks, that the strategy is shifting from symbolic spectacular high casualty attacks, to more frequent and less complex strikes that are easier to organise and execute. But the targeting of Charlie Hebdo is revealing in another way.

In 2006, the magazine published the notorious Muhammad cartoons that had previously run in Denmark, provoking worldwide protests across the Muslim world. Charlie Hebdo had also run several of its own original cartoons of the Prophet of Islam. The terrorists’ decision to target Charlie Hebdo is thus more than just an attack on France; it is an effort to rally populist support from across the Muslim world for the Islamist cause.

Successive global public opinion polls across Muslim countries up to 2013 show that overwhelming majorities have increasingly expressed “negative views” about al-Qaeda terrorism, to the point that support for the Islamist terrorist network had waned to an all-time low.

Given IS’ fantastical messianic ambitions to establish a global ‘caliphate,’ the latest massacre in the name of ‘avenging the Prophet’ can be seen as a sign that Islamist extremists are now recognising the increasing unpopularity of Islamist violence amongst Muslim publics – illustrated once again with the unprecedented mass mobilization of Pakistanis in response to the Taliban’s recent massacre of school children. This is an attempt to turn the tide, and rally Muslims to their support.

Muslims hate terrorists, too

Yet it won’t work, and illustrates how out of touch the terrorists are with Muslim public opinion. It is a little-known fact that most victims of Islamist terrorism worldwide are not westerners, but Muslims – which no doubt partly explains why Muslims increasingly hate Islamist terrorists. In the bitter aftermath of the Paris attack, Muslims worldwide have already responded with disgusted outrage, including countless posts on social media. Rather than, enfranchising already overwhelmingly disgusted Muslims to the Islamist insurgency in Iraq and Syria, the latest atrocity will further reinforce its utter religious illegitimacy and moral bankruptcy.

The danger is that the more reactionary elements of the French and European political establishment see an opportunity to vindicate their anti-Muslim ideologies, while pushing the mainstream further to the far right. But this would only compound the risks.


France’s failed policies towards its Muslim minority communities have played a critical role in establishing a groundswell of social exclusion and alienation, that makes some French Muslims vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist extremists.

This was even acknowledged by Bernard Squarcini, the head of France’s Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI), who recently admitted that the reasons France has faced an increasingly high risk of terrorist attack include the country’s history as a colonial power, its military involvement in Afghanistan, and the widening restrictions on Muslim women’s dress including the banning of headscarves in public service jobs.

Yet in some ways, Squarcini also misses the point, even noted by private US intelligence firm Stratfor, which is closely linked to the American military intelligence community:

“France has a significant Muslim minority largely segregated in slums known in French as ‘banlieues’ outside France's major cities. A significant proportion of the young Muslim men who live in these areas are unemployed and disaffected. This disaffection has been displayed periodically in the form of large-scale riots … which resulted in massive property destruction and produced the worst civil unrest in France since the late 1960s. While not all those involved in the riots were Muslims, Muslims did play a significant and visible role in them… Moves by the French government such as the burqa ban have stoked these tensions and feelings of anger and alienation. The ban, like the 2004 ban against headscarves in French schools, angered not only jihadists but also some mainstream Muslims in France and beyond.”

In this context, characterising the Charlie Hebdo killings as a despicable “attack on freedom of speech” may well be true, but also obscures the fact that many unemployed, alienated French Muslims justifiably feel that this is a case of double-standards.

Why should freedom of speech not apply to their freedom to merely practice and express their religious faith? It is here, in the powerlessness to challenge the encroachment on religious freedoms under the French brand of secularism, fuelled by the grievances about ongoing wars in the Muslim world, that vulnerability to radicalisation begins. If we uphold the freedom of speech of Charlie Hebdo to mock religion, and we must, should we not question the withdrawal of this elementary right to France’s Muslims?

Not in my name

A kneejerk response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre would be familiar: crackdowns, monitoring and curbs on Muslim communities, including racial profiling; wild promises of “punishing” the attackers and taking decisive action to root out terrorists once and for all; ramping up military intervention in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere to increase the heat on the terrorists at source, and teach them a lesson.

The problem is that these are tried, tested, and failed strategies that serve largely as useful recruiting sergeants for terrorist networks like IS and al-Qaeda. We are so obsessed with these strategies, despite their abject failure, that while getting rightly worked up at the horrifying atrocities against the West like that just committed in Paris, we are incapable of mustering a similar emotional response to the reports of dozens of civilian casualties due to US-led airstrikes.

Such so-called collateral damage, which includes the “mass destruction of civilian homes” by western bombs according to rebel eyewitnesses on the ground, is not even an accident, but a result of Obama’s deliberate loosening of "near certainty" standards previously adopted to minimise civilian deaths: and is already driving locals into the arms of IS.

We must not fall into the trap of the terrorists themselves – the inability to recognize the suffering of the Other, their wholesale demonization, the acceptance of their indiscriminate destruction as a necessary means to a "greater good." The only way forward is for people of all faith and none to stand together in rejecting the violence perpetrated in our name, whether by state or insurgent.

Recognising that the Paris atrocity is predictable blowback which is likely to worsen as we insist on narrow, reactionary militarised solutions, does not absolve the perpetrators of responsibility for their terrible crimes; but it might help us find a path to safety based on co-existence, renunciation of violence, and unity in adversity.

 - Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Thousands participated in a vigil at Place de la Republique in Paris following the deadly attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo (AA)

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