Was Charlie Hebdo attack about revenge – or recruiting European jihadis?

Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen may have had multiple goals in mind in targeting the weekly magazine in Paris, but almost certainly among them was a desire to draw French Muslims to the jihadist cause, some experts in radical Islam say.

Lionel Cironneau/AP
Jean Paul Bierlein reads the new Charlie Hebdo outside a newsstand in Nice, France, Wednesday. In an emotional act of defiance, Charlie Hebdo resurrected its irreverent and often provocative newspaper, featuring a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. The letters on the front page read: 'All is forgiven.'

Was last week’s terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo Al Qaeda’s version of the recruitment fair?

Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen may have had multiple goals in mind in targeting the weekly magazine in the heart of Paris, but almost certainly among them was a desire to draw French Muslims to the jihadist cause by driving deeper a wedge between them and the secular society they live in, some experts in radical Islam say.

The Charlie Hebdo attack “was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon,” says Juan Cole, a historian specializing in the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan. “It was an attempt to provoke European society” to act against French Muslims, he adds, “at which point Al Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes.”      

On Wednesday, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed it planned and financed the attack in Paris that killed 10 journalists at the magazine and two police officers. The group claimed in a video statement delivered by AQAP founding member Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi that the attack was an act of “vengeance for the Messenger of Allah,” meaning the Prophet Muhammad.

Charlie Hebdo has long published irreverent – many Muslims would say blasphemous – cartoons featuring Muhammad, including one on the cover Wednesday, the first edition of the weekly published since the attack. The cover shows Muhammad, a tear in his eye and holding the sign “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie,” under the legend “All is forgiven.”

But beyond simply an act of retribution, the brazen attack carried out by two French Muslims in a country with Western Europe’s largest Muslim population may have been designed above all as a tool for awakening France’s youthful Muslim population, some experts in terrorist ideology say. The broader objective, they add, was very likely to attract those drawn to expressions of power – and perhaps violence – to the jihadist cause by driving a wedge between Muslims and the majority secular society.

The best path to preventing the attack being successful as a recruiting tool, these experts say, is the kind of tolerance shown after terrorist acts in Norway in 2011 and Australia in 2014.

Most French Muslims are not keenly interested in religion or in politics of any stripe, “let alone political Islam,” Michigan’s Professor Cole says. But that could change if events like the Charlie Hebdo attack succeed in polarizing the Muslim and majority populations, he adds.

“Al Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of indifference,” says Cole, writing on his webpage. “But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”  

Another angle of the “recruitment” argument is that Al Qaeda, which hasn’t had the success in attracting the interest of Western Muslims that the Islamic State, or ISIS, has, was out to gain on the competition by shunting IS off the global stage with its own globally transfixing operation.

“They see ISIS getting all the headlines, all the recruits, so they may have decided to try to replicate the success of their rival” Islamist  terrorist organization,  says Martha Crenshaw, an international terrorism expert at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation in Palo Alto, Calif.

Indeed there is no proof that AQAP directed or financed the Charlie Hebdo attack as it claims in today’s video, Dr. Crenshaw says, but if the group is claiming it “it’s because they know it could be useful to them,” she adds. “They are getting a tremendous amount of publicity out of it.”      

Experts like Crenshaw say IS purposely used European fighters as executioners in its beheading videos last summer, as part of an effort to show young Muslim men a path to power and glory. The Charlie Hebdo attack suggests that AQAP took notice, Crenshaw says.

 “They would have seen that the would-be fighters were flocking to Syria and not to Yemen,” she says. “It may be they decided, ‘We’d better get our name out there, and unless we act in Europe we won’t be able to attract Europeans.”     

Experts in European jihadism say there is no one tidy profile of the Muslim who is likely to fall prey to the siren of radical Islam. But they also warn that the elements that can sometimes lead to radicalization are common enough to draw the attention of groups like AQ and IS.

In a new book entitled “Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe,” RAND Corp. researchers Angel Rabasa and Cheryl Bernard find that Europe’s radical Islamists are a “diverse group” that runs from first-generation immigrants with grudges against their new home, to second- and third-generation immigrants who do not identify strongly with either their nation of birth or their country of origin, and who in many cases have expectations that exceed their “perceived opportunities.”

A common feature of Europe’s radical Islamists is alienation, the two researchers conclude, although “a failure to integrate into the broader European communities is not a strong predictor of radicalization,” says Mr. Rebasa, a senior political scientist at RAND’s Washington office.

A more common profile of a “Eurojihadist, ” the RAND experts say, is a young middle-class man who thinks he “deserves better” than what his country is giving him and is drawn to a new identity with what he imagines as an empowering “worldwide Muslim community.”

Stanford’s Crenshaw notes that France in particular has “a long history of radical potential” in a segment of its immigrant Muslim population, dating at least from the 1990s and the rise of political Islam and then radical Islam in former colony Algeria. Such roots won’t be easily cut off, she says.

Many specialists in terrorist ideology say that, while there is no easy or foolproof means of vanquishing the attraction of radical Islam for even a small minority of Western Muslims, increased social polarization and anti-Muslim expressions like Europe’s Pegida movement would almost certainly heighten the attraction.

“Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance,” says Cole.

In December, after an Iranian gunman took hostages in a Sydney café, thousands of Australians extended support to Muslims fearful of a backlash with the #illridewithyou campaign. People offered to meet those worried about being targeted for their faith at local bus stations and ride with them to defuse any anti-Islamic tensions.

Cole points to Norway and its response to the 2011 terrorist attacks by anti-Muslim radical Anders Behring Breivik as “a model for response to terrorist provocation.”

The Norwegian government “launched no war on terror,” Cole says, but remained committed to its “admirable values” as it proceeded to find Mr. Breivik guilty of mass murder for the deaths of 77 people.

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