So it has come to this. At about 11 a.m. local time yesterday, black-masked Islamic extremists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine that has frequently enraged the faithful with its caricatures, murdering the receptionist and then massacring eight members of staff, one guest, and a police officer serving as bodyguard to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, during the weekly editorial meeting. After the killers—at least two, possibly three—fled the building, they were heard to say (in French): “We have avenged Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo.” After getting into a car, the holy warriors got into a gunfight with French police in the next street. One police officer was injured, and video has emerged showing his execution-style murder. The policeman turned out to be a Muslim named Ahmed Merabet. Today, a second police officer has been killed as the French police close in on the suspects. This brings the death toll to thirteen.
The first thing to note is how unsurprising this is. France has dealt with Islamist terrorism on its soil since at least 1995, when the “Roubaix Gang,” connected with al-Qaeda and the then-ongoing Bosnian jihad, carried out a series of relatively sophisticated bank robberies. French President Francois Hollande said that in recent weeks French security services have foiled a number of terrorist plots. France has also failed to foil a number of plots related to the jihad in Syria and Iraq, which has attracted so many European recruits that Western security services are at breaking point. In March 2012, Mohamed Merah, a jihadist of Algerian origin, went on a killing spree in Toulouse and Montauban, specifically targeting Jews. Merah was referred to as a “lone wolf” by many but he was no such thing: he was an al-Qaeda agent. Merah had been in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the security services had known about his radical leanings, and they had dropped the ball. In the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 the French had bungled even worse: having tracked the killer, Mehdi Nemmouche, back from Syria, French intelligence lost him, and thus a man who once said, “It’s such a pleasure to cut off a baby’s head,” was able to kill again. In December, three attacks in three days by jihadists with knives and cars thankfully caused no deaths, and while Paris has “played down” the possibility of the involvement of a foreign terrorist organisation, the investigation is ongoing. This is not to have a go at the French: their security service is probably the best on the Continent, and for the most-part it does a superb job, but the scale of the problem means they cannot be perfect, and it was quite evident that something like this was coming.
As of writing this, France has identified the killers as Said Kouachi, 34, his brother Cherif Kouachi, 32, and 18-year-old Hamid Mourad, all of Algerian background. Mourad has turned himself into police in Charleville-Mézières, eastern France. The Kouachis remain on the loose. Cherif was arrested in January 2005 as part of a jihadist recruitment ring, the “nineteenth arrondissement network,” named for a Paris working-class neighbourhood, and sentenced to three years in prison in May 2008 after he planned to travel to Syria, and thence to Iraq to do holy war against the elected government and the Americans. (Reminder: Assad supported what is now the Islamic State quite openly during the Iraq War, with the foreign fighters arriving at Damascus International Airport and being placed under the protection of his military-intelligence apparatus, given safe-houses, training, and other support, before being unleashed on the New Iraq.) Cherif is also reported to have returned from Syria in the summer, and the question now becomes: Who were they working for? The “lone wolf” thesis is out by definition—there are three of them—but the question inevitably arises of whether they returned from the Levant with instructions to carry out this attack. The Wall Street Journal noted that it is “unclear whether the gunmen … were part of a broader organization,” though the jihadists have been quoted saying, “You say to the media this is al-Qaeda in Yemen” i.e. al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda’s most active affiliate. Time will tell.
A murky question that is going to have to be confronted is the possibility of State complicity in this attack. One candidate is Russia. In the video we have of the killers, one of them appears to speak Russian. This would not be surprising: thousands from Chechnya, Dagestan, and other places in the Caucasus are among the ranks of the Salafi jihadists in Syria and Iraq, and in their recruiting grounds, in the Balkans and Vienna, the Salafi jihadists have made some of their most successful inroads among Chechen communities. What is noteworthy is how thoroughly infiltrated was the Chechen insurgency: Moscow’s provokatsiya (provocation) had the insurgents discredit themselves with fanaticism and violence, isolating them from the population and global sympathy, and allowing Russia to put down the insurrection. Now that many of those Chechens have decamped to the Fertile Crescent, a question remains over where exactly their loyalties lie. Given that one of the immediate-run reactions here is going to be the empowerment of the Putin-friendly hard-Right in France, Marine Le Pen specifically, it is worth bearing in mind that this might not be wholly accidental.
Then there is Iran. The idea that Iran might assist Sunni jihadists is surprising only to those wholly ignorant of the subject. Iran has been deeply involved in the Salafi jihadist scene in Bosnia and other Balkan States since the early 1990s—the same networks that are now funnelling the recruits from elsewhere in Europe through Turkey to Syria and Iraq. In 1996, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK) and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), through the Saudi Hizballah cut-out, bombed the Khobar Towers complex, murdering nineteen U.S. airmen. The 9/11 Commission found that al-Qaeda played “some role, as yet unknown,” in the attack. Interestingly, the attack was directed by IRGC Brig. Gen. Ahmed Sharifi, who worked out of the Iranian Embassy in Syria, where a lot of the terrorists were recruited and trained, and where many of them fled afterward. At the present time, inside Syria, Iran has orchestrated a strategy of provocation—including everything from propaganda and Active Measures (which had considerable Russian help), to possibly training Islamic State fighters—that has helped drive the insurgency into extremism, discrediting it in the eyes of the West and not only denying it Western assistance but drawing the West in on Assad’s side as his de facto air force. It would be of great help to Iran for all focus to be taken off the industrial slaughter by its troops and their Assadist proxies of Syria’s civilians as Iran consolidates a Jihadist Empire across the region, and instead for all concern to be on these Sunni terrorist networks. It worked for the Algerian regime. Faced with rising discontent from Paris about its conduct, Algeria’s powerful spy agency, the DRS, brought off the 1995 bombings of the French metro. Those in France who knew what really happened got the message and backed off; from that point on Paris’ diplomacy supported Algiers. Those who didn’t know what had happened—which is to say most of the public—reacted as they were meant to: with fury against the Islamists, and a renewed sense that whatever was needed to crush the Islamist revolt in Algeria was the lesser evil compared with an Islamist takeover.
The reaction to this has been mixed. Last time Charlie Hebdo was attacked, when its offices were firebombed in 2011 over a special “Shari’a Hebdo,” Bruce Crumley of Time Magazine condemned the “Islamophobic … offensive, shameful” cartoons and said that such things “beg for the very violent responses from extremists”. Though USA Today has, in an extraordinary editorial decision, brought in Anjem Choudary, the British rent-a-quote jihadist, to offer its “opposing view,” including that Islam doesn’t believe in freedom of speech and that the victims have nobody to blame but themselves, most have felt the need to draw a line. Even the Guardian blamed the killers not the cartoons. Unfortunately, many media outlets are still censoring the cartoons. This is a re-run of the 2006 “cartoon jihad” when the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in response to self-censorship that meant there was nobody to illustrate a children’s book on Islam, ran a Muhammad cartoons contest, and was met—after a several month delay in which several clerics, notably the Denmark-based Imam Ahmed Abu Laban, organised the mayhem—with an international pogrom that killed one-hundred people and burned out several Embassies. Not only did media outlets—with a few exceptions like the Weekly Standard and Free Inquiry—not publish the cartoons in solidarity, they wouldn’t publish them as a news item. The whole furore was about the cartoons—and the press wouldn’t show readers what they looked like. Well here we go again.
The reaction of the White House has been depressing, refusing to be drawn on whether or not this is terrorism. Last month, in response to the North Korean threats to the makers of The Interview, which was a dreadful film but which one had a duty to watch after Pyongyang tried to shut it down, President Obama said:
We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. … [I]magine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.
“Whose sensibilities need to be offended”—something the administration has never applied with regard to radical Islam. In his infamous Cairo Speech in June 2009, President Obama took a slap at the French government for its policy on the veil, never wondering if perhaps the French were on to something in believing this covering was somewhat less-than-voluntary in the banlieues. The administration’s impulse to blame the West for being incendiary has never gone away. In September 2012, after the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Obama administration was at pains to condemn the video, The Innocence of Muslims, a crude YouTube clip, which had been used to orchestrate mobs outside Embassies in Tunisia and Egypt, and which the administration insisted was the cause of anger that led to a protest getting out of control in Benghazi. It soon emerged that the attack was a professional terrorist strike designed to coincide with the Sept. 11 anniversary.
This attack is somewhat different to the others, however. Whereas incidents like the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoons, and The Innocence of Muslims were clearly used by local power brokers to secure themselves—Ruhollah Khomeini to rally the street after the calamitous Iran-Iraq War and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government to absorb some of the criticism from the more hardline Salafists—and where the July 7, 2005, bombing in London and the Madrid bombing on March 11, 2004, were indiscriminate attacks on European voters that were intended not just to demonstrate the permissibility of murdering infidels but to split the international coalition against al-Qaeda and weaken public resolve in the War on Terror, this attack had no such earthy dimension. The killers this time took aim at Western freedom and made no bones about it: they were enraged that Westerners had the freedom to mock the Prophet Muhammad, and they have now silenced the immediate “offenders” and spread terror for those who might consider emulating. If terrorism is “propaganda of the deed,” the meaning of this couldn’t be clearer. In that sense this is much more like the slaughter of Theo Van Gogh or the attempted murder of Lars Vilks: targeted killings by Islamists to try to impose their will on the West.
While material considerations have played a role in previous eruptions of Muslim “outrage,” there is a real issue of ideology here. Proving the point, The Onion published a sexually explicit cartoon of Moses, Jesus Christ, Ganesha, and Buddha. As they noted, “not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way.” Whatever people feel obliged to say for reasons of political positioning, they well know that such a thing could not be done about Islam’s prophet—and they have just been shown what happens to those who dare. Many Western Muslims, even those offended by Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons, will condemn the killings and defend the right of free expression, but some don’t, and it will not do to say they are not the “real” Muslims. It is not for outsiders to make the judgment about what is and is not Islamic; all we can do is help the healthier forces within Islam. But to deny that the extremists are within Islam, as I have explained before, is a cure worse than the disease: it will legitimate declarations of takfir (heresy), and that is not an auction the liberals can win.
It might well be interjected that this is an overreaction; that the killers and their ideological allies are a small minority, that only Western overreaction with excessive security measures or racialist attacks against coloured people believed to be Muslims can defeat the West’s values. But it isn’t true. Haaretz’s cartoonist Amos Biderman pointed out that he himself was already frightened after the 2005 Danish cartoons fiasco, and when he personally was prepared to run the risk there were now all kinds of pressures around to stop him. “The bad guys have already won,” Biderman concluded. Historian Tom Holland wrote of the time of Islam’s birth, debunking many of the religious myths. The accompanying TV program was cancelled. In 2011, a lunatic pastor, Terry Jones, proposed to burn a Qur’an and was addressed by the highest authorities in the United States begging him not to. Thus, it is not an overreaction to say that without serious and immediate resistance, Islamic militancy will destroy Western freedom because Islamic militants have already curtailed Western freedom. There are now whole areas from art to satire to scholarship that have limits imposed on them by a well-grounded fear of violence—and this is to say nothing of the physical control exerted by Islamists in areas of the West. This is self-censorship, for the most part, which is the worst kind because it allows the surrender to be passed off as something other than what it is, often in references to cultural sensitivity, to artistic merit, or the safety of staff. Of the many examples today, one can instance Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, who asked: “What right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point?” The fight is over before it’s started.
The arguments against unequivocally siding with Charlie Hebdo that rely on saying they “knew what they were doing”—which used to be said about Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses—and which hint that the victims bear responsibility for what happened are both silly and obscene. Of course they knew what they were doing! It’d be very strange if they didn’t. But it is not (thankfully any longer) acceptable to say that a woman who is dressed provocatively brought the rape on herself, and the same should apply here. People who will kill you over a cartoon, the most innocuous form criticism and satire can take, will kill you for anything: there is no compromise position to be staked out where the West will put up with just a little bit of violent coercion against the right of free expression. The damage to free expression has, as mentioned, already been done, but the answer to that is to roll back the strictures placed on us by religious fanatics, not to complete the surrender. There is no meaningful freedom without freedom of speech, and to say people like Theo Van Gogh and the staff at Charlie Hebdo are distasteful test cases is only to underline the point. The start and finish of it, as put by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, is that “free speech is designed precisely to protect offensive speech“. Charlie Hebdo‘s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, once said, “I prefer to die standing than live on my knees.” This has now come to pass. But rather than being cowed by this demonstration that the fanatics really will kill if you offend them, this should encourage us to, in the phrase of the moment, “spread the risk”: they can’t kill us all, and—who knows?—against a more united front they might not even try.
Update: Like a broken record, on Jan. 8 the Assad dictatorship—while careful to condemn the atrocity against Charlie Hebdo—said that it “has repeatedly warned of the dangers of supporting terrorism [i.e. the Syrian rebellion] … and warned that this terror will fall back on his supporters”. In an interview published on Jan. 15, Bashar al-Assad remained on message, telling a Czech newspaper Literarni Noviny, “We kept saying [to the West,] you must not support terrorists or give them political cover, or else this will impact your countries and your peoples”. Iran made a statement on Jan. 9 saying that it condemned the terrorism, and said such people damage the image of Islam. The next day, Hassan Nasrallah said the same thing, adding that “takfiris are the biggest threat to Islam”. (This despite the fact during the cartoons furore in February 2006 Nasrallah made plain that he believes murdering Salman Rushdie for blasphemy is correct, and that had the Muslims not been so laggard in carrying out Imam Khomeini’s sentence they wouldn’t have had to deal with these wretched provocateurs in Copenhagen.) On Jan. 9, another report suggested that Lebanese intelligence—read the Hizballah—had told European services that a massive terrorist attack related to the European holy warriors who have journeyed to the Fertile Crescent was coming. “We were wrong for not taking your warnings seriously,” a European security officer is quoted as saying.
The interest here is that Iran and its tributaries made this a matter of geopolitics, not blasphemy. Iran, which brought us the modern era of international violence because somebody has insulted Islam, did not even bother with a pro forma condemnation of blasphemy until much later. Given that Iran has previously waged a campaign of terror in Paris in 1986-7—on that occasion to pressure Paris to change its policy on sheltering the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK) and backing Saddam Hussein in his war with the Iranian revolution—it is especially well-placed to understand that terrorism in Paris is usually political warfare—subversion, to give it an old-fashioned name—by States, intended to change French policy, as it was again with Algeria in 1995 as described above. That cut-outs are often used and the people who pull the trigger aren’t always aware of the agenda they are actually serving is par for the course in terrorism generally.