Can Europe Make It?

The Charlie Hebdo attack: a first look at the background and context

Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leaders of Al-Qaeda, equated ‘acts of slander’ to the bombing of villages and killing of innocent Muslims, evoking similar notions of ‘defence’ and ‘vengeance’.

Donald Holbrook
8 January 2015
Charlie Hebdo's 2 versions.

Charlie Hebdo's 2 versions. Davide Del Giudice/Demotix.All rights reservedAs the dreadful details of a gun attack on the Paris offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo continue to emerge, questions are inevitably being asked about what could motivate such ruthless acts of violence. It is much too early to speculate about any of the specifics that led to this attack; indeed at the time of writing the assailants are still at large.

Yet, according to initial reports the attackers appeared to have made references to Islam and to protecting the sanctity of the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine had provoked Islamist anger on several occasions in the past by publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet that many Muslims found offensive. These included the batch of caricatures that initially appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 that provoked widespread fury among Islamists, including the radical Islamist militant fringe.

The centrality of religious sentiments

It might seem perplexing to many that mocking religion or religious figures could lead some to call for and carry out acts of violence on this scale. Even a cursory glance at the substance and essence of Islamist extremist ideology, however, provides ample examples that highlight the centrality of such spiritual issues for the Islamist militant mind-set. Al-Qaeda and fellow jihadists are not angered merely by foreign policy or war. They are—and have always been—equally preoccupied with (and sensitive towards) alleged mockery of central religious figures, especially the Prophet Mohammed.

Words, according to this mind-set, can be as harmful as deeds. This relates especially to sanctity of the Prophet and his legacy, whose society Islamist militant puritans, such as followers of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) group, seek to recreate.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leaders of Al-Qaeda, equated such ‘acts of slander’ to the bombing of villages and killing of innocent Muslims: they evoked similar notions of ‘defence’ and ‘vengeance’.[1] Islamist extremist propaganda has called for the murder of those responsible for ‘provocations’ of this kind before, including cartoonists, authors, filmmakers and newspaper editors and many have indeed been targeted as a result. As well as the on-going fall-out from the Danish cartoon controversy almost ten years ago and—going even further back—the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, anti-Islamic gestures such as the YouTube film ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ from 2012 and public desecration of the Quran continue to form part of an Islamist extremist narrative that legitimises the targeting of those seen as responsible and the forces that protect them. In this context, police officers may have been no less of a target than the newspaper itself.

Islamist extremist ideologues and propagandists have a very long memory and a strong tendency to group grievances together into all-encompassing conspiracy theories. The publication of material defaming the Prophet, therefore, is seen not only as a crime in itself but also as representative of a society that permits such crimes to be permitted.

Underlying tensions

The attack on Charlie Hebdo will, therefore, inevitably raise questions about underlying tensions in French society and beyond, especially relating to freedom of speech and religious extremism. French secular laws have already provoked anger among jihadists, including Al-Qaeda, in relation, for instance, to the 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools that Islamists invariably referred to as a government ban on the Islamic veil.

These dual notions of secularism, even anti-religiousness, and freedom of speech thus clash with proponents of radicalised religiosity.

Inevitably—if indeed this Islamist component becomes clearer in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attack—the wave of anti-Islamic sentiments that has spread across Europe in recent weeks and months will likely grow and spread further. This might actually exacerbate the siege mentality of radicalised Islamist youths in particular, potentially contributing to a vicious cycle of mutual distrust and resentment.

The political fall-out

Whilst much is still unknown about the Charlie Hebdo attack it is already clearly the deadliest terrorist attack that France has suffered for decades, worse even than the wave of Islamist bombings in Paris in the mid-1990s. It comes at a time of heightened tensions in France, which has seen a spate of lone Islamist extremists attacking soldiers, police and members of the public in crude and isolated incidents similar to the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013.

French nationals, meanwhile, have been prominent in the ‘foreign fighter’ contingent of jihadist organisations fighting in Syria, especially the ‘Islamic State’. Indeed, IS appears to have more recruits form France than from any other European country.

One line of inquiry, therefore, will undoubtedly be whether the perpetrators of this attack had any link to IS or other jihadist organisations, including Al-Qaeda, operating in Syria or whether they had been exposed to fighting in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East or, perhaps, North or Sub-Saharan Africa. This ‘returnee’ problem is seen as a major security risk in western capitals.

All this violence, in turn, comes in the wake of France’s military operation in Mali, which Islamists also used to justify attacks against the country and its citizens. That intervention was partly aimed at targeting Islamist extremism abroad to avoid suffering its consequences at home.

Full details of this incident are still emerging. However the Charlie Hebdo attack will likely fuel fears across the globe about the continued potency of Islamist extremism not only abroad but also within the heart of Europe, almost a decade after the London bombings and more than twenty-five years after the formation of Al-Qaeda. 

An earlier version of this article was published initially in The National, 8 January 2015.


[1] Zawahiri (2012) ‘In Support of the Messenger, May the Peace and Blessings of God be Upon Him’, produced by As-Sahab and distributed on jihadi websites on 12th October.

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