Three gunmen killed 12 people and critically wounded five in an attack this morning at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Among the dead were two French police officers assigned to protect the office. The magazine is widely known for lampooning Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, and it has paid a high price for it. The magazine's Paris office was completely destroyed by a Molotov cocktail attack in November 2011 in response to a previous edition that contained caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine's editors refused to tone down their content despite repeated threats, the past attack and requests by the French government not to publish provocative images.
This attitude meant that they continued to be in the crosshairs of jihadists in recent years. For example, the 10th edition of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine contained a hit list of people who had insulted the Prophet Mohammed. That list included Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, whom, according to early reports of today's attack, is among the dead. One of the attackers was alleged to have shouted out, "You tell the media it was al Qaeda in Yemen" during the assault, Britain's Channel 4 News reported.
That such an attack occurred in Paris is not surprising. Indeed, the jihadist threat in France and other parts of Europe has been acute for some time. From photos and videos of the attack it appears that the gunmen were trained, from the way they handled their weapons, moved and shot. This raises the possibility that they had received training in using light arms (perhaps at a jihadist camp overseas) or had fought with jihadists overseas.
The method used in the attacks is also not surprising. Jihadists returning from overseas rarely receive training in advanced terrorist tradecraft, but almost all of them receive training in small arms and small unit tactics. These attackers conducted a successful attack using what they knew instead of attempting to conduct an attack beyond their capability and failing as a result.
That the attack involved a group instead of a lone gunman is also unsurprising. The nature of the jihadist threat is slightly different in Europe than it is in the United States because of differences in the Muslim communities. In the United States, where the Muslim community is more integrated and less likely to be isolated in their own districts, plotters tend to be more self-radicalized and aspirational. Once they become radicalized — frequently via the Internet — it is quite common for them to be arrested as they seek assistance with their plots from individuals who are FBI agents or police informants working on sting operations.
Because of Europe's concentrated and disenfranchised Muslim population, it is not difficult for radicalized European Muslims to find confederates who are not police informants. Even more aspirational and inept groups — such as the four men who were arrested in April 2012, in Luton, United Kingdom, and who pled guilty to plotting to attack a British army base on March 1, 2013 — can be part of a larger radicalized community and have friends and relatives who have been involved in prior plots or who have traveled overseas to fight jihad. This was true for Toulouse shooter Mohammed Merah. Although he conducted his shooting attacks alone, Merah had long been part of a larger militant community and had traveled to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan to train and fight.
The gunmen, who are still at large, can be expected to continue to attack until they are killed or captured. They may or may not have been acting under direct orders from a jihadist group but were in all likelihood working in solidarity with either al Qaeda or the Islamic State. There will probably be some sort of claim of responsibility, in which their ideological affiliation will be made clear, beyond shouted statements reported from the scene.
The attacks happened at a time when the role of Muslim minorities in France is the subject of a heated debate, especially after the publication of a novel that depicts a Muslim president governing France. It also happens at a time when the anti-immigration National Front is seeing record levels of popular support and will probably be a serious contender for the presidential elections of 2017. The situation of Muslim minorities is also controversial in Germany, where anti-Islam protests have taken place in recent months, and in the Netherlands, where the far-right Party of Freedom proposes tighter immigration laws.
Such attacks will continue in the West as long as jihadism survives as an ideology. They will be limited in scope but intended to cause terrorist theater that spills well beyond the limits of the attack to create vicarious victims. Because of this continuing threat, citizens should practice appropriate situational awareness and be prepared to properly respond to danger.