Last Week French Officials Stood Up for Offensive Speech. This Week They’re Arresting People for It.
The French comedian Dieudonné has been arrested for a Facebook post from Monday in which he wrote, “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” mashing up the popular “Je suis Charlie” slogan with a reference to the gunman who took hostages at a kosher grocery store in Paris last Friday. In part the arrest could be seen as part of the beefed-up security measures France has put in place in the wake of last week’s violence. But it’s also not the first time Dieudonné has fallen afoul of the law.
The comedian has been convicted of inciting racial hatred multiple times for comments disparaging Jews and denying the Holocaust. The biracial comedian—his father is from Cameroon—was once part of a comedy duo with the Jewish comedian Élie Sémoun, known for edgy but popular bits mocking cultural differences. But he split with Sémoun in the late 1990s, and his comedy has since veered from Borat-style mockery to outright anti-Semitism.
Dieudonné has befriended former National Front leader and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen and appeared onstage with the Holocaust-denying historian Robert Faurisson. In 2012 he released a widely panned film, L’Antisemité, which includes an extended segment mocking Auschwitz.
The comedian has also become known for his signature gesture, the quenelle, which critics say is an inverted Nazi salute but which he says is a nonracist symbol of nonconformity. If Americans have heard of Dieudonné, it’s likely through the French San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker, who apologized in 2013 for doing the gesture with the comedian in a photo. (Parker said he wasn’t aware of its significance.) The French Premier League star Nicolas Anelka was suspended for five games last year for doing the quenelle as a celebration after a goal.
Loathsome as many of Dieudonné’s remarks are, there’s something ironic in the fact that a government whose leaders were marching last week in defense of the right to offensive expression are this week arresting people for it.
Freedom of speech is protected under French law, but as in several other European countries, there are a few more exceptions to that freedom than in the United States. France’s main piece of hate-speech legislation prohibits incitement to discrimination, hatred, or violence based on race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation. Additionally, a controversial terrorism law passed last year bans material that incites or glorifies terrorism. (As the Dieudonné case shows, authorities are taking that rule pretty seriously this week.)
A number of high-profile figures have been charged under the law, including Le Pen, who has been fined multiple times for remarks about Muslims and the Roma. His daughter, current National Front leader and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, may also face charges over remarks comparing Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France.
Fashion designer John Galliano was fined for a drunken anti-Semitic rant in 2011. Actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot has been fined for insulting Muslims while criticizing halal slaughtering practices. Charges were filed against Bob Dylan last year for a typically Dylanesque tangent in a Rolling Stone interview in which he (sort of) compared Croatians to Nazis. The case was dismissed on the grounds that he hadn’t intended for the remarks to be published in France. Charges were also filed and then dismissed in 2001 against author Michel Houellebecq, who appeared on the last issue of Charlie Hebdo before the attack, for an interview in which he called Islam “the most stupid religion.”
Not surprisingly, the provocateurs at Charlie Hebdo have themselves been targeted under the law. In 2006, Muslim groups tried filed racism charges against the paper for republishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons. Then-President and noted Charlie critic Jacques Chirac offered the groups the services of his personal lawyer, but the charges were eventually dropped. Cartoonist Siné was also charged in 2009 for a cartoon implying that Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was converting to Judaism for financial reasons. He was eventually fired from the magazine after saying “I’d rather cut my balls off” than apologize for the cartoon.
Sensitivities are understandably high after last week’s attack, and certainly Dieudonné’s comments are worthy of denunciation. But it would be unfortunate if the byproduct of an attack on free speech was further legal restrictions on it.
ISIS and al-Qaida Are Enemies. How Can They Both Have Been Involved in the Paris Attacks?
In a video that surfaced over the weekend, Amedy Coulibaly, the now-dead suspect in the attack on a kosher market in Paris last Friday, declared his allegiance to “the Caliph of the Muslims, [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi," and also claimed to be “with the team who did Charlie Hebdo.”
Those two claims seem somewhat contradictory.Before he was killed on Friday, Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, claimed to have been “financed by Imam Anwar al-Awlaki,” the late U.S.-born cleric and propagandist for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Kouachi is believed to have spent time training with the group.
Both ISIS and AQAP have praised the attacks, but they are definitely not on the same team. Al-Qaida and its affiliates have been at odds with ISIS since early last year and have fought against each other on the battlefields of Syria. ISIS leader al-Baghdadi declaring himself caliph, as referenced by Coulibaly, was widely seen as a direct challenge to al-Qaida honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership of the global jihadist movement. In November, AQAP issued a statement directly rebuking ISIS’s caliphate claim. There have been some reports that ISIS is patching things up with al-Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, but worldwide, the two groups are still generally seen as being in direct competition.
So the fact that adherents of both groups seemed to be working together in Paris last week is notable. As Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute notes, in the days following the attack, the big question was whether ISIS or al-Qaida was involved. “The answer likely seems to be ‘neither of them’ and ‘both,’” he writes. Watts breaks terrorist attacks into three types: “directed” attacks, like 9/11 or AQAP’s bombing plots, fully orchestrated by groups like al-Qaida; “inspired” attacks, like the lone wolf actions recently seen in Canada and Australia; and an intermediate category he calls “networked” attacks, in which individuals who have spent time with groups like al-Qaida and ISIS organize their own cells with minimal supervision from the larger organizations. The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were likely operating along these lines.
While ISIS and al-Qaida, as centralized organizations, may be sworn enemies, things may be more fluid for their adherents around the world, who share a common ideology and common goals. As the counterterrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer wrote on Twitter today, the dual claims in Paris suggest that “some jihadis relate to IS/AQ like football teams. You can support different clubs and still watch game together.” Certainly, supporters of the two groups online seem to be reacting to the events in Paris with common enthusiasm.
It might seem somewhat incoherent that these two groups are fighting against each other in the Middle East while their adherents work together in the west. But frankly, they’re not the only ones who’ve been forced into uncomfortable political contortions by the multidimensional civil war in Syria.
The Biggest Free-Speech Hypocrites at the Paris Rally
Sunday’s massive rally may have been intended to demonstrate political unity, but, with 40 world leaders marching, it highlighted some bitter divisions as well, from American partisan politics, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the French political establishment’s agonized reaction to the growing power of the far right. But there was also this: For an event held to support freedom of expression, there were an awful lot of leaders in attendance who curtail that very freedom in their own countries.
Reporters Without Borders highlighted a list of free-speech “predators” who traveled to Paris for the event, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which was the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013, and President Ali Bongo of Gabon, a country where press criticism of the government is discouraged by expansive libel laws and physical attacks against journalists.
Also in attendance were the foreign ministers of Egypt, Russia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates—all of which rank near the bottom of RWB’s press freedom index. The ambassador from Saudi Arabia, where a blogger just began a sentence of 1,000 lashes for blasphemy, was also in attendance.
The past three years have been the deadliest for journalists around the world since the Committee to Project Journalists began keeping records in 1992. More than 200 were arrested last year, including both local reporters and an increasing number of foreign correspondents.
Condemnation is usually swift and universal when the perpetrators of attacks on the media are nonstate actors like the Paris gunmen or the ISIS fighters who beheaded two American reporters in the Syrian desert last year. But it’s much rarer for governments to be held accountable for either attacks on or intimidation of the press, or creating an atmosphere that makes such attacks more likely. It’s unfortunate that a rally decrying extreme intolerance gave feel-good cover to some governments that are among the leading perpetrators of it.
Are Paris-Style Attacks the Future of Terrorism?
This week’s assault on Paris does not fit into the mold of what we typically think of as a terrorist attack. The attackers employed guns, rather than bombs, fled the scene of the initial attack rather than martyring themselves, and displayed some level of tactical acumen without it being clear that they were trained professionals.
It’s not that commando-style raids have never happened. They just receive less attention than suicide bombings because they more often take place in war zones, where there’s less media coverage than in major international cities. A U.N. report released last July, in fact, found that the Taliban had shifted their tactics from improvised explosive devices to gun battles in heavily populated areas. This is one major reason for the recent increase in civilian casualties in Afghanistan. And this week hundreds are believed to have been killed in a series of shooting raids by Boko Haram on a town in northern Nigeria.
“I would place [the Paris attack] into the ‘urban warfare’ model of attacks,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-author of a 2012 report commissioned by the U.S. Congress on the use of small arms by terrorists. “First, it’s an attack that’s designed to make use of a broader urban area as a battleground. Second, the attackers intend to survive long enough to extend this out over a couple of days, thus to prolong the terror and keep a place feeling skittish. Urban warfare attacks also often involve taking hostages in one place or another.”
The first example of such an attack on a city at peace was Mumbai in 2008, when about two dozen militants from the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked multiple locations in the Indian city, firing on civilians, setting off explosives, and taking hostages. The attacks “were perceived as being hugely successful, and al-Qaida has been talking about how to emulate this for some time,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London. In 2010, intelligence services of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany claimed to have disrupted a plan to carry out “Mumbai-style” attacks on several European cities.
Last year’s al-Shabab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi also fit the mold, involving multiple shooters, hostages, large numbers of casualties, and unfolding over the course of several days.
In the case of the Paris attacks, attention has focused on the possible role of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the networks’ Yemen-based affiliate. According to a Reuters report Friday, intelligence officials believe that one of the two brothers who carried out the shootings, Said Kouachi, met with the U.S.-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki during a visit to Yemen in 2011 and may have spent time training with the group.
Pantucci says that in terms of its international operations, AQAP “has mainly been focused on getting very complicated and sophisticated bombs onto planes.” But, he says, that doesn’t mean it’s surprising that the group would be involved in something like this. “These guys don’t have one methodology and that’s it. They’re flexible and out to make the maximum impact,” he says. The group’s English-language magazine, Inspire, has suggested a plethora of potential attack methods, and Awlaki had also been in touch with Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan.
The appeal of this kind of attack is obvious. As Pantucci puts it, “The marauding-shooter scenario has maximum effect and only really requires people with guns.” Commando-style attackers need some training—the Indian government has long alleged that members of Pakistan’s intelligence services played a role in training and coordinating the Mumbai attackers—but not necessarily a whole lot. The Paris shooters clearly were well-equipped and weren’t complete amateurs, but also made some major tactical mistakes. Military experts interviewed by the Washington Post have said the Kouachis’ shooting stance betrayed a lack of professional training. Plus, they initially got Charlie Hebdo’s address wrong.
Given the amount of damage the Paris attack caused and the international attention it has garnered, the natural question is whether we’ll see more attacks of this type in the future. The director of MI5 warned Thursday that Britain is at risk of what are now being called “Paris-style” attacks. (It’s worth noting intelligence agencies have a habit of hyping threats to justify their own activities and budgets.) As for the United States, al-Qaida has been suggesting for years that the country is “awash with easily obtainable firearms” that could be used in a jihadist attack.
The good news is that in order for urban-warfare-style attacks to be really effective, they require multiple participants and some amount of coordination. That means they’re easier to catch before they happen. “It requires plotters, not just a plotter, and Western intelligence services are better at stopping groups,” says Gartenstein-Ross.
“Lone wolf” attacks, like those seen in Canada and Australia in recent weeks, are much harder to detect ahead of time but also usually less effective. Though as numerous non-jihadist American shooters have demonstrated in recent years, a lone gunman can also cause a frightening amount of damage under the right circumstances.
The Kosher Grocery Shooting Follows a String of Anti-Semitic Attacks in France
It is unclear if the grocery store where a hostage situation unfolded earlier Friday was targeted because it is kosher, but the siege there follows a string of attacks on Jewish businesses and synagogues in France, the country with the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after the United States and Israel, as well as the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. Last month, speaking at a rally against anti-Semitism in the Paris suburb of Créteil, the country’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said that anti-Semitic acts and threats had more than doubled in the past 10 months, and he promised to make the issue a “national cause.”
The rally was prompted by a particularly shocking crime in Créteil in which a couple was robbed and the woman raped in their apartment by armed assailants who told them they had been targeted because “you Jews, you have money.” Tensions reached a high point during last summer’s war in Gaza, when demonstrations turned violent with pro-Palestinian youths attacking Jewish businesses in a neighborhood known for its large Jewish population. Several synagogues were also firebombed. Demonstrators at some rallies chanted slogans like “death to the Jews” and “slaughter the Jews.” These incidents followed an attack in May on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where a French former ISIS fighter killed four people.
These attacks have added to the growing unease of a community still reeling from the 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, which killed three children and a teacher, as well as the grisly torture and murder of a young Jewish man named Ilan Halimi in 2006. While these dramatic incidents have garnered the most international attention, smaller anti-Semitic crimes have become depressingly commonplace. On New Year’s Day of this year, for instance, a fire was started and a swastika drawn on the wall of a synagogue in a Paris suburb.
While not all the perpetrators of these crimes have been Muslims—police also arrested five men believed to be “far-right” activists for making threats against a synagogue last month—the vast majority of them have been, and they have contributed to the increasing public unease about the country’s growing immigrant population.
Notably, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s anti-immigration National Front party, has taken steps to distance herself from the overt anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism of her father, the party’s founder, and focused the party’s rhetoric on immigrants from the Muslim world.
Debates over anti-Semitism have spilled over into the country’s cultural conversation as well. Dieudonné, one of the country’s most popular comedians, has sparked outrage and hate-speech charges with jokes about the Holocaust and the all-powerful Jewish lobby, as well as his patented gesture, known as the quenelle, which resembles an inverted Nazi salute. And in 2009, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist known as Sine for a cartoon the implied that Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was planning to convert to Judaism for financial reasons.
The distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment can often get pretty hazy, but it seems apparent that Mideast politics are often used as cover for plain old anti-Semitism. While French leaders have vowed to combat this problem, and have recently taken responsibility for past moments in the country’s history of anti-Semitism (in December, France agreed to pay compensation to victims who had been deported to the camps on French railways), the country has seen a dramatic increase in Jewish emigration to Israel. The vast majority of the country’s 500,000-strong Jewish community is staying put, but Friday’s events will only increase a growing sense of unease.
The Charlie Hebdo Shooting Was a Violent Attack Against Blasphemy. Governments Do This All the Time.
The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris this week was uniquely horrific. But in one way, it was not that unusual: Violent acts in response to “blasphemy” are unfortunately pretty common. They’re just usually perpetrated by governments.
In December, Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed was sentenced to death for apostasy for a post he wrote that argued against the religious legitimacy of the country’s rigid caste system, which often takes the form of chattel slavery. Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, won’t be killed for perceived insults to Islam, but this Friday he will receive the first of 20 weekly public floggings. Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes along with 10 years in prison and a $26,666 fine last May on charges that he had insulted his religion on his website, Free Saudi Liberals. As Reuters notes, the government of Saudi Arabia, where judges are trained as religious scholars and have wide latitude to interpret Islamic law, condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack but has also called for an international law against insulting religion.
In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, UCLA law professor Amjad Mahmood Khan argues that Pakistan’s absurdly broad blasphemy laws—under which any “imputation, innuendo, or insinuation” that “directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of Prophet Muhammad” is outlawed and in some cases punishable by death—have not only led to the arrest of thousands of individuals for crimes as trivial as wearing an Islamic slogan on a T-shirt, but “provide legal cover for terrorists to commit atrocities in the name of protecting Islam’s integrity based on their warped view of the faith.” This includes the mass killings of members of minority sects like the Ahmadis, who are forbidden by law from calling themselves Muslims and frequently charged under blasphemy laws, as well as attacks on Christians.
Just this week a Pakistani man who had been arrested in 2011 for blasphemy after declaring himself a prophet but was recently released after being deemed mentally unstable, was found murdered by gunmen outside of Islamabad.
Blasphemy laws are harshest and most common in the Muslim world, but aren’t exclusive to it. In the wake of Pussy Riot’s church performance, Russia’s parliament passed a new law mandating jail terms for insults to religion. Nearly a quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws on their books, according to Pew, and one out of 10 bans apostasy. The Charlie Hebdo killings have already prompted some Western governments, notably Ireland and Canada, to announce that they will reconsider the blasphemy laws on their books. But in much of the world, governments, not terrorists, will continue to be the biggest threat to freedom of and from religion.
This post has been updated for clarity.
Will Anyone Claim Credit for the Charlie Hebdo Attack?
While officials and analysts seem to be leaning toward the theory that the perpetrators of Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo had help from a larger terrorist organization, no group has yet claimed credit. Does this make it more likely that that the shooters were lone wolves, operating independently?
Not at all. First, we’re still in the early days. The shooters remain at large, and it’s not unusual for groups to wait before claiming credit for major operations. As Foreign Policy’s John Hudson pointed out in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston bombing, Osama Bin Laden took almost two months to claim credit for the 9/11 attacks. And as my colleague Brian Palmer noted during the speculation that surrounded the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, only about 14 percent of terrorist attacks get claimed at all.
Islamist groups, the leading perpetrators of terrorist attacks around the world in recent times, are generally less likely to claim credit than nationalist or extreme right- or left-wing groups, as they’re often less interested in winning concessions from their enemies than in simply destroying them. “Anonymous attacks are often taken to indicate that groups are disinterested in building grass-roots support for their movements and closed to efforts at political compromise,” wrote the political scientist Aaron Hoffman in a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Peace Research.
Still, if an international group was behind this attack, it does seem likely that we will eventually hear from it. In research presented at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting last year, the Stanford political scientist Eric Min identified several factors that make terrorist groups more likely to claim credit for an attack. Claims, he argued, are more likely “for attacks that involve high costs (suicide and casualties), institutionally constrained states (democracy), and competitive environments.”
France is a democracy and the attack was large, but the last factor is probably the most important. Terrorists groups are more likely to claim responsibility for attacks when they’re in competition with other terrorist groups. In some cases this can even lead to multiple organizations claiming credit for the same attack. At least three Pakistani jihadist groups tried to take credit for a bombing that killed about 60 people near the Pakistan-India border in November.
At the moment, al-Qaida is competing with its rivals in ISIS on the battlefields of Syria for the loyalty of smaller jihadist groups around the world, and for recruits—including young disaffected Muslims in Western countries like the suspects in the Charlie shooting. And the delay in claiming credit would fit the pattern of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the offshoot that French and U.S. officials have pointed to as the most likely perpetrator. AQAP waited several days before praising and claiming involvement in both the Fort Hood shooting and the attempted Christmas Day shoe bombing of 2009, the group’s most high-profile operations in the west.
If al-Qaida is indeed involved in such a successful operation against a long-hated enemy, it seems likely that it eventually will want to make sure that al-Qaida—not ISIS, not anyone else—gets the credit.
What We Know About the Terror Group Thought to Be Behind the Paris Attack
Following eyewitness testimony reported yesterday, that the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo massacre claimed to be from “al-Qaida in Yemen,” a French police official tells the AP today that the suspects, French brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, are believed to be linked to a Yemeni terrorist network.
If it’s true that al-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was involved in the attack, Wednesday was quite a day for them. In Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, a suicide bomber killed at least 37 people when he rammed a bus rigged to explode into a gathering of recruits outside a police academy. No one has yet claimed responsibility for that attack, but it fits a pattern of recent al-Qaida assaults in the country.
The Editor of Charlie Hebdo Was on an al-Qaida Magazine Hit List
It’s still early going, but the sophistication of Wednesday’s attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is, as the New York Times reports, leading experts to suspect the involvement of al-Qaida or one of its affiliates. According to one eyewitness, one of the gunmen yelled, “Tell the media that this is al-Qaida in Yemen” as he was fleeing.
Another clue: In a recent issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine published by the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the 12 people killed Wednesday, was featured on a hit list under the caption “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away.”
The other figures on the list, with their photos displayed under the headline “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam,” are Kurt Westergaard and Lars Vilks, two cartoonists who have already survived assassination attempts after drawing cartoons of Mohammad; Carsten Juste and Flemming Rose, editors at Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that caused an international scandal by publishing Westergaard’s cartoons in 2005; Terry Jones, the Florida preacher best known for attempting to publicly burn the Quran in 2010; Geert Wilders, the leader of the right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom, known for his outspoken criticism of Islam; Morris Sadek, an Egyptian Christian activist based in Virginia, best known for promoting the anti-Mohammad film The Innocence of Muslims; and Salman Rushdie, the celebrated author who spent years in hiding after being threatened by Islamic fundamentalists over his book The Satanic Verses. (Several of the names are misspelled in Inspire’s graphic.)
The page also separately lists two women, though it does not include their photos: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-American activist and critic of Islam, and Molly Norris, the American cartoonist who promoted “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” in 2010 to protest the censoring of a Mohammad-themed episode of South Park.
Inspire, which has distinguished itself through its slick graphic design and cheeky headlines like “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” was the brainchild of the American AQAP members Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, but has continued to publish intermittently since they were killed by U.S. drone strikes in 2011.
Terrorism analysts have criticized English-speaking reporters for attributing too much importance to the publication, which often seems aimed as much at the media as at potential jihadists. Which is why it’s a mistake to read too much into the list. It’s highly unlikely that the French-speaking perpetrators of Wednesday’s attacks got the idea from the magazine. But it certainly gives an indication of the mindset that led to Wednesday’s events, not to mention the strange but very real focus on writers and cartoonists.
France Was on Edge Over Terrorism Even Before the Charlie Hebdo Attack
We still don’t know much about the attackers who killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, though the paper’s track record on poking at Islamic extremists and the video of the black-clad gunmen chanting “Allahu Akbar” as they made their escape makes their motivation pretty apparent.
France hasn’t seen an attack on this scale since seven people were killed in a shooting rampage against a Jewish school and French soldiers in 2012. And it comes at a time when the country is on high alert over French extremists fighting in Syria. (Though it’s worth keeping in mind that Hebdo’s offices had been bombed before and the paper had been a target of extremists long before the war in Syria started.)
France, a member of the international coalition fighting ISIS, is also one of the leading suppliers of foreign fighters to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. The French interior ministry stated in September that about 930 of its citizens are fighting with jihadist groups, including ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in Iraq and Syria. France is one of a number of European nations that instituted policies last year aimed at preventing young people from traveling to the Middle East to take up arms, motivated in part by fears that these fighters could return to France to carry out attacks at home.
The concern is legitimate. Senior ISIS leaders have specifically called for attacks against citizens of France, as well as other countries involved in the coalition. Last May, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French jihadist of Algerian origin who had spent time fighting with ISIS in Syria, shot and killed four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. A French journalist who was held captive by ISIS later recalled being beaten by Nemmouche. And in November the French government confirmed that two Frenchmen had appeared in the video depicting the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig as well as 18 Syrian prisoners.
Recent days have also seen a series of smaller attacks in France. On Dec. 20, French police shot dead a man who had shouted “Allahu Akbar” while stabbing three officers in a police station near the city of Tours. Just before Christmas, the country saw two attacks, one in Nantes and another in Dijon, involving cars hitting pedestrians, which fit a pattern of similar recent attacks around the world. In the car attacks, prosecutors specifically said the men were mentally unbalanced and that these were not instances of political or religious terrorism, though that definition seems a little hard to parse given that the Dijon driver was a recent convert to Islam who was reportedly upset over the treatment of Chechen children.
It is fair to say that these earlier attacks were almost certainly the work of self-motivated lone actors who may have been inspired by jihadist propaganda but weren’t acting under direct orders from anyone. These kinds of attacks are extremely hard to prevent—lone wolves leave less of a paper trail than organized terror cells—but tend not to be all that effective.
Wednesday’s attack was several orders of magnitude more sophisticated and deadly than these earlier efforts. One early eyewitness account suggests that Wednesday’s gunmen identified themselves as members of “al-Qaida in Yemen,” which is likely a reference to the Yemen-based chapter more commonly known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP isn’t linked to ISIS, though its compatriots in Jabhat al-Nusra have also been targeted by Western airstrikes in recent months. Whether or not it turns out that the gunmen were under orders from AQAP or another group, this was an attack that likely took extensive planning and coordination.
Last month Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France was facing an “unprecedented” threat from terrorism. At the time it seemed a bit of an overstatement in a country that has sadly known its share of terror over the years. Judging by the fact that the perpetrators were able to carry out such a well-executed attack in a major European city, escape the scene, and reportedly did it speaking perfect French, he may have been right.