‘Charlie Hebdo’: High-impact, low-tech tactics add chilling dimension to attacks

January 9, 2015

French soldier patrol near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security

In the aftermath of 9/11, the biggest fear that haunted U.S. counter-terrorism officials was that al-Qaeda or its allies would somehow get hold of a weapon of mass destruction: a biological agent or a nuclear bomb.

As a series of more recent attacks have shown, notably in Mumbai, India, in 2008, and Wednesday in Paris, a handful of committed volunteers can send shockwaves around the world with tools no more sophisticated than an assault rifle.

In this age of the lightly-resourced, self-starting urban guerrilla, the jihadists have discovered a formula that lends a chilling new dimension to their trade. Not only can anyone be a victim, but with such a low bar to entry, anyone might be a perpetrator too. The brothers who shot dead 12 people at the satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, planned their killing spree in plain sight.

Add to this the high drama that Mumbai- and Paris-style attacks generate — televised scenes of manhunts, special forces and sieges — and they begin to look like an even more attractive force-multiplier. For the aim is never simply to kill for the sake of killing. Such attacks are always planned with broader political goals in mind. The key to defeating the extremists lies in seeing past the horror and understanding their logic.

The stakes have seldom been higher than they were in Mumbai in 2008, when a group of 10 volunteers trained in Pakistan held the city hostage for four days by staging a series of bomb and gun attacks on targets including hotels, a cafe and transport terminal in which 166 people were killed. Images of smoke and flames billowing from the ornate Taj Mahal Palace Hotel transfixed a global audience. But the greater danger lay in a spike in tensions with Pakistan, which India blamed for harboring Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that orchestrated the attack. With the two countries locked in a nuclear stand-off after three wars, a small team of gunmen armed with AK-47s might have sparked a clash between armies.

In Paris, the goals of the militants were different, but parallels remain. As in Mumbai, where the perpetrators were carefully groomed by a large umbrella organization, it seems that at least one of the Paris attackers had received training abroad. According to Western intelligence, Said Kouachi, one of the brothers, had spent months at a camp in Yemen run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s most active affiliate.

Militants enmeshed in trans-national networks are often easier to identify than unmoored individuals imbibing propaganda on Islamist websites. The problem in Paris was not in spotting Said and his brother Cherif — both were under police surveillance — but in pre-empting their plan. The failure to stop them has stoked a growing sense in Europe that more such killing sprees are inevitable. Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, admitted as much this week when he warned that although security agencies were doing their utmost, they could not hope to stop every incident.

How then to respond? In the wake of Mumbai, a more devastating episode even than the appalling massacre in a Paris newsroom, the Indian government showed admirable restraint that curbed any risk of a hot war with Pakistan. In France, the jihadists nurse more insidious goals: stoking a cycle of suspicion and prejudice that will leave Muslim communities feeling increasingly isolated, and therefore more liable to yield them fresh recruits. Amid the outrage and grief, an already difficult atmosphere for Muslims in France could become even more poisonous. Strong emotions are not supportive of nuanced debate. An ‘us-versus-them’ mentality is precisely what the gunmen hope to impose.

French President Francois Hollande has already sought to defuse such a prospect by making a statesmanlike appeal for unity. Muslim leaders have used Friday prayers to urge their followers to join countrywide protests against the attack. Yet it is too soon to say whether France’s political class will have the wisdom to hold an honest debate about the widening divisions and growing xenophobia in their country, and why such a large number of French citizens have joined aspiring European jihads flocking to Syria and Iraq.

Nor is the question of how to neutralize the urban terror threat that spurred the attacks in Paris and Mumbai purely a conundrum for Western governments or Pakistan’s neighbors. As David Kilcullen, the counter-insurgency expert, has argued in his 2013 book Out of the Mountains, we will see more violence erupting in increasingly contested and over-crowded cities in central America, Africa and the Middle East, fuelled by a growing nexus of conflict and organized crime. There is always a choice as to how to respond. As the West has learned from the price it paid during a 13-year war in Afghanistan, launched within weeks of the collapse of the Twin Towers, it rarely pays to react in haste. 

PHOTO: French soldier patrol near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as part of the highest level of “Vigipirate” security plan after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo January 9, 2015. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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All religions need to give up the right to claim they have the only path.

Posted by jimheffner | Report as abusive

Some words of wisdom.
In Australia, general anti-Muslim paranoia has not gained much traction. The government and media have stressed the difference to violent extremism. Islamic community/religious leaders and the general Muslim population have been encouraged to “save” their young people from fanaticism and violence without becoming “police spies”. After the Sydney hostage deaths a few weeks ago, one big response was the “I’ll ride with you” social media which offered volunteer escorts for people in hijabs etc that felt threatened going shopping or on public transport. Rednecks abusing and threatening Muslims in the street and on transport have been filmed on mobile phones, which is then shown on TV news/current affairs, so offenders are publicly shamed and identified for the police for prosecution.
In the public perceptions, amongst the large number of Lebanese immigrants, it has often been the Christians rather than Muslims who have murdered their daughters in “honor killing” or formed criminal drug/extortion gangs. Recently, nominally Christian refugees from South Sudan and Kenya have drawn attention by raping teenage girls in parks and back streets. So there is a related problem with “integrating” immigrants from non-western cultures. Some of the solutions such as decent general education and health services etc are seen as “socialist” by right-wingers, who often support religious schools and in general encourage a siege / ghetto mentality and reality. In France and Algeria, there is a much more complex history than just a religious dimension.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Nothing can justify killing people solely over words, cartoons, or other forms of expression. But let’s not deceive ourselves: an attack like this was easily foreseeable. To be surprised at the violence directed at these cartoonists is like insulting someone’s mother and expecting not to get punched.

Even so, the reasons for terrorist attacks like this one go deeper than mere cartoons. Western countries, led by the United States, have been provoking Muslim countries for decades. We’ve been bombing those people, invading them, occupying them, imposing sanctions on them that have starved to death hundreds of thousands of people, and aiding Israel in committing atrocities and stealing land. Are they supposed to love us for these things? What would we do if we were in their shoes? But no, we’re told to believe that they “hate us for our freedom.”

Speaking of freedom, since when are countries like France “free”? European politicians sure talk big about “free speech” when the Muslim religion is being mocked, but say anything that questions the Jewish Holocaust and go straight to jail. This is pure hypocrisy and a glaring double-standard. It would appear that “some animals are more equal than others,” and some sacred cows, too.

With the exception of direct, credible threats of violence and/or persistent harassment of specific individuals, ALL speech should be free and legally protected. No one has a right to never be offended, and it’s impossible to outlaw all speech that is capable of causing offense to someone, somewhere.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

The extraordinary stupidity of unwarranted mayhem and violence is “high impact,” no doubt. It is, as Matthew writes, “Us versus them.” The prophet business is not even founded in the Muslim religion, what it does is relegates Mohammed as God by saying one is not be portray Mohammed, they don’t care about God, with all the destruction they only care about their own anarchistic egos which are based in their total lack of concern and total lack of love for anything in this world. They cannot be ANY MORE WRONG.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

We can only hope that fear mongering fails on all sides. It all depends on how Mr. Hollande confronts the French ultra-nationalists in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Posted by cleanthes | Report as abusive

The bigger danger, not mentioned, is the inevitable repeal in personal liberty and increased surveillance in so called western countries.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Funny how everyone knows this AFTER it happened. 20/20 hindsight BS.

We need more surveillance and recording, not less. What are some posters so afraid we’ll find out about you? You looking at child porn?

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

We the Orthodox Christians had enough fun with the Turks for 500 years, now it’s western Europe’s turn to have fun. Similar case happened in Macedonia not that long ago where five Macedonian kids were killed by ethnic Albanians and it barely made it into the western media. Training camps in Bosnia, Kosovo ,Albania all paid by Saudi Arabia and no one wants to do anything about it.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

If one were hoping to destroy what little freedom the people in the still have, this is the way to do it. Heck, in the US Bush and Obama use the fear that weak people have to literally take away habeas corpus and justify the creation of a secret police like the old soviet union had. Maybe France won’t be such evil pussies.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive