Who are the #CharlieHebdo killers?

One of the hallmarks of terrorism is that provokes its audience to prematurely assign meaning.

Today’s brutal attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has swiftly been taken to be an attack on free speech and this meaning seems so obvious, no one pauses to consider whether it is accurate.

The attackers identities remain unknown but there is little reason to doubt that they are Islamic extremists of some description. Exactly who is a detail that is probably of less concern to those whose first need is to condemn violence and to defend free speech.

I neither doubt the sincerity of these condemnations nor the need to defend free speech, but it’s important to try and understand exactly what happened.

A few hours before the attack, the magazine tweeted:

The caption says “Greetings from al-Baghdadi as well” and the ISIS leader is saying, “…and especially health.” The magazine adds, “Best wishes, by the way.”

But Kim Willsher at The Guardian notes this important detail about the timing of the attack:

If the attackers had studied the work schedule of the journalists that carefully, it’s reasonable to infer that this operation was painstakingly planned and its occurrence right after the Baghdadi tweet was either pure coincidence or just a useful pretext.

It’s now reported that the gunmen told a bystander that the attack was carried out by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The gunmen have been described as wearing military dress and armed with Kalashnikovs and a rocket launcher.

Drawing a distinction between AQAP and ISIS may seem like a distinction without a difference. But the two jihadist groups have different objectives and competing interests.

In late November, NBC News reported:

Escalating a war of words between terrorism’s old and new schools, an Islamic scholar with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based offshoot on Friday accused ISIS of “planting … disunity” among the various Islamic extremist factions fighting to topple the Syrian government and rejcted the authority of the Iraq- and Syria-based group’s self-declared caliphate.

Harith Al-Nadhari, a spiritual leader and Shariah law scholar with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said in a videotape released on YouTube and other social media that the infighting among Syrian rebel groups was “the biggest disaster that hit the Ummah (Arabic for the Muslim community) at this stage.”

He blamed ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, for the divisions, saying that it had exported “infighting and fitna (Arabic for strife) to other fronts,” according to a translation of his comments by Flashpoint Partners, which monitors terrorist group’s online communications.

Al-Nadhari also criticized ISIS for what he described as an overreach by calling for Muslims everywhere to “pledge allegiance to the caliph.”

While AQAP acuses ISIS of sowing discord between Muslims, the Charlie Hebdo attack is clearly aimed at sharpening the divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims and between the East and the West.

To the extent that this message resonates with those whose support for ISIS has become shaky, the attack may serve a strategic goal: to present al Qaeda rather than ISIS as the preeminent defender of Muslims.

An ISIS critic, noting the difference in expressions of concern about deaths in Syria versus those in Paris, tweets:

At the same time, there is also apparently an ongoing effort to use the attack to coral support for ISIS:

Naturally, the conspiracy theorists — yet to agree on their narrative — are busy at work:

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg tweets:

Many have retweeted a 2012 New Yorker cartoon which depicts the price of capitulating to the opponents of free speech.

And in defense of the satirists, it’s worth noting that as much as they were criticized for being provocative, their sharp statements were not lacking in nuance:

And neither was their critical focus reserved for Islam:

Before too many voices get raised in an unreflective and uninformed defense of Western ideals, let’s hope the gunmen are caught and they are carefully questioned.

An eyewitness description of the attack may turn out to be quite significant:

“Everything happened very calmly, without shouting, without insults.”

That the attackers operated with clinical efficiency suggests that their operation was not only planned meticulously but there was probably as much thought put into anticipating its effect.

That’s why I’m inclined to think that this was designed not simply to send a narrow message — this is the price for insulting Islam — but to have a much wider impact, deepening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims.

It’s largely our choice whether the attack has this effect.

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One thought on “Who are the #CharlieHebdo killers?

  1. Shilpa

    I agree, I think this is exactly the measured reaction to take. It is exactly the detail about the magazine’s heavy staff presence that caught my eye, implying careful planning and consideration, and I’ve yet to see any real calls for the perpetrators to be caught and questioned. I’ve questioned as well the role to which IS propaganda played a role in influencing this attack, in essence entrusting and empowering the attackers from afar to carry out extreme violence against civilians without any real coordination with a central command structure. It is not the ‘lone wolf’ attack as with Breivik or the Tsarnaev Brothers. They are seemingly isolated groups or individuals acting of their own volition, but cannot be divorced from the context of violent discourses that spreads across borders, nor of the reaction and rise of the far right across Europe. While there is a massive dearth of knowledge about the attackers, it seems right now to be the embodiment of what fundamentalist leaders incite and what western leaders use to justify security measures: an attack from within western secular democracies.

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