The Purpose of the Attack on Charlie Hebdo

The Purpose of the Attack on Charlie Hebdo January 8, 2015

Juan Cole has an interesting take on why Muslim reactionaries murdered 12 people at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, arguing that there was a strategic purpose behind it: To create a sharper division and prompt an overreaction that would spark a wider war between the French government and Muslims.

The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. 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.

This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörlgasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks–who would later be Stalinists– the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital.

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it’s certainly plausible and would not be surprising. It’s the one thing that the Muslim reactionaries and Islamophobic reactionaries have in common, they both agree that there is — and should be — a war between the West and Islam as a whole. Reasonable people on both sides recognize both the absurdity and the danger of that position.

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  • colnago80

    Juan Cole, a leading apologist for the Ayatollahs and a leading Israel basher, is hardly a reliable source of information. I call bullshit on this hypothesis.

  • D. C. Sessions

    It’s the one thing that the Muslim reactionaries and Islamophobic reactionaries have in common, they both agree that there is — and should be — a war between the West and Islam as a whole.

    So who’s going to draw the cartoon where the two attackers are a Muslim fanatic and a LePen fanatic?

  • D. C. Sessions

    SLC, unlike you I really don’t care who wrote the piece because it points out something that’s basic to all terrorists: their objective is to change the target society through reaction. That’s why the Patriot Act was such a roaring success for Al Quaeda.

    Likewise, another basic is that the extremists at both ends have a common enemy: peace and prosperity. Which gives them common cause (see Patriot Act, above.)

  • colnago80

    There was a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the two perps who remain at large have been cornered in a small French town by the gendarmes. The third perp surrendered to the authorities this morning.

  • eric

    An interesting idea but I’m skeptical. Not because of the author like SLC, but because IMO highly contrived plans are a lot less common than our action fiction makes them out to be. I don’t really think we need to look beyond the obvious motivation; these were religious fanatics targeting a group notorious for blaspheming their prophet (amongst other religious figures), with punishment as their main goal and maybe deterrence as a secondary goal, but no deeper motivation than that.

  • David C Brayton

    Interesting speculation.

    But did Juan provide any evidence other than “signs of professional training” and “unaccented French” ?

    Since everyone speaks with an accent, I don’t find that to ‘evidence’ of anything other than where the perps learned to speak French. And signs of professional training means little more than they knew how to use their weapons and read a few Soldier of Fortune magazines.

  • Synfandel

    The Independent’s staff cartoonist, Dave Brown, has an interesting graphical reply to the attackers.

  • While this is certainly a possible explanation, like eric, I’m doubtful. Occam’s Razor and all that. On the other hand, Cole does actually provide some anecdotal evidence for this kind of thing happening before.

  • It’s my understanding that a similar goal was among al-Qaeda’s objectives in undertaking the 2001 September 11 massacres.

    From this analysis:

    The third and “ultimate objective,” according to Al Adl, “was to

    prompt [the United States] to come out of its hole.” Al Adl claims that Al Qaeda

    wanted to provoke the United States into attacking areas of the Islamic world

    associated with the organization and its affiliates. In doing so, Al Adl claims, Al

    Qaeda hoped to make it easier to attack elements of U.S. power and to build its

    “credibility in front of [the Islamic] nation and the beleaguered people of the world.”

    In other words, among other reasons (including retribution/punishment), al-Qaeda wanted to provoke a violent reaction from the US that would galvanise public support for al-Qaeda and its co-ideologues from Muslims generally, paving the way for the establishment of “an Islamic state governed solely by sharia law” (a strategic goal stated by Ayman al-Zwahiri as per the linked report).

    So I certainly find it plausible that, among other reasons (including retribution/punishment), the Charles Hebdo murderers wanted to provoke a violent reaction by non-Muslim French, or non-Muslim anyone if they could (courtesy of the reach of social media), galvanising support in France and elsewhere for their causes among Muslims generally.

  • leftwingfox

    Not because of the author like SLC, but because IMO highly contrived plans are a lot less common than our action fiction makes them out to be.

    Doesn’t seem all that convoluted to me. All it requires is a belief that the backlash to a terrorist action will harm Muslims more than the terrorist act itself does.

  • Alverant

    Considering there have already been attacks against muslims in France, this may not be so far fetched.

  • Abby Normal

    It’s more comforting to me to imagine the attackers as simple reactionaries venting their rage. The idea that they are strategizing on the level of manipulating an entire culture in some kind of long game is chilling. But from seized al-Qaeda documents we know that such strategizing does take place. Ultimately I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Either way our actions should be the same, react with calm courage. We (and by “we” I mean opponents of radical Islam) should neither be cowed into submission nor provoked into overreacting. The less impact they have the more we win.

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    Abby Normal, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the motivation for the specific individuals that carried it out. That’s one reason that religion is such a useful tool for manipulating people, unfortunately.

    Those who provided the weapons, training and information about the meeting at CH may well have used religion as their blunt tool, but could easily have been thinking about the reaction as the ultimate goal.

    Hard to say really, but it doesn’t seem terribly far fetched to me. It does require a little more evidence than the simpler suggestion, though.

  • It’s not impossible that this is their goal, but we can’t really know at this point.

    But it definitely rings true to me that most French Muslims aren’t really interested in religion much, nor in political Islam, as that’s what I observe here in the Netherlands too. The data are clear enough: mosque attendance today is at similar levels as Catholic church attendance 20 years ago, and falling (yet we didn’t worry about Papal takeovers back then). Meanwhile, Muslims are mostly voting for secular parties (left-leaning mostly) , while attempts at starting a national Muslim party never really come off the ground. I’m sure this is a problem for radical Muslims. It’s seems to me it’s also inconvenient for the “Sharia is coming! Any day now!” crowd, as I often get fairly heated push-back when I point out these simple facts. So I think that dynamic definitely exists.

    It’s also good to see that already in France a lot of people are working to try and prevent an increasing polarization, for example Muslim organizations condemning the attacks, and left-wing parties consciously making sure that the anti-attack protests don’t turn into a right-wing anti-immigration hate-fest.

    But as said, whether increasing polarization was the goal of these attacks, remains to be seen. It’s kind of a risky strategy anyway, as it also emboldens your opponents. And it’s especially risky when those opponents have more power than you.

  • If there strategic goal was to polarize Muslims from the rest of France, then they blew it tactically by killing a Muslim police officer. “Je suis Charlie.” is quickly being augmented with “Je Suis Ahmed.”

  • Michael Heath

    Juan Cole’s speculation was also my immediate reaction to what motivated al Qaeda to slaughter these people. To see how effective they were here in the U.S., last evening I read the comment section of the relevant article at the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ has a far broader cross-section then just theologically and politically conservative Christians. There cultural Christians who aren’t all that devout but are still conservatives/authoritarians are in abundance.

    That article then had over 2000 comments, far too many to even skim let alone read. So I sorted by popularity (reader up votes) and found a singular theme. The readers there are using this event to continue to conflate Islamists with all Muslims. This in the framework of their arguing that liberals are in league with this imagined population. So from this perspective, al Qaeda was exceptionally successful and as nearly always, conservatives struggle to perceive reality given their bigotry, determined ignorance, and motivated reasoning.

    We continue to see an effectively small difference from our worst wingnuts and what is now considered mainstream conservatives.

  • @colnago80 in #4:

    The third perp surrendered to the authorities this morning.

    Last I heard, the third suspect reported to the police when he found out they were looking for him. He claims he was in school at the time of the attacks. Fellow students have supposedly already confirmed this. So he may not be a perp at all.

  • dcsohl

    Like others here, I’m a bit dubious this was a conscious intent behind the attacks. But there’s no doubt that, should France lash out with widecast anti-Muslim policies, these sorts of things that Cole describe will be the ultimate effects.

    To summarize the summary: Why can’t we all just get along?

  • nrdo

    It doesn’t take a genius to observe that the general effect of terrorism is to polarize populations. Anyone with an even cursory familiarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would notice how belligerent minorities undermine relatively moderate majorities. Terrorists know this and it encourages them.

    However, to imply that this is a false-flag operation to precipitate a “pogrom” is quite offensive and out of line, given the thin to non-existent evidence he presents.

  • …a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

    That may be a reason some interest-groups condone or facilitate such actions, and it may be one of the actual outcomes of said actions; but we should not discount the immediate purpose and effect envisioned by the perps themselves: to punish CH for making fun of their religion, and to forcibly deter anyone else (including less-extreme Muslims) from saying anything critical of their beliefs or actions. There is (so far at least) no evidence that the perps had anything else in their so-called minds.

    Not all violent crimes are part of a grand global chess game. The interests of power-politics will surely play a role here, but this is basically, first and foremost, an act of violent revenge and criminal intimidation, just another bunch of gangsters silencing whoever comes after them. Let’s not dignify these thugs by ascribing higher-minded motives to their thuggery.

    PS and protip for the Likudnik Chickenhawk: if you want to “call bullshit on this hypothesis,” do it based on the hypothesis itself, not on your ignorant (and unsupported) assertions about the author, which aren’t even relevant to this particular subject.

  • colnago80

    Attached is a column in the latest New Yorker placing the blame for the attack on the French Magazine where it belongs, on Islam, particularly radical Islam. The author, George Packer is right on the money.

  • colnago80

    Re dcsohl @ #18

    To summarize the summary: Why can’t we all just get along?

    It is not possible to “get along” with radical Muslimes because they are besotted by their vile religion. There’s only one way to “get along” with them, and that’s via implements manufactured by Smith and Wesson (or Glock if you prefer).

  • Anne Fenwick

    To create a sharper division and prompt an overreaction that would spark a wider war between the French government and Muslims.

    If it isn’t a purpose, it’s a potential result and one which we should do everything we can to be vigilant against.

  • matty1

    I thought false flag referred to acts where the perpetrators pretend to be someone else, not where they have a larger goal. Unless someone is claiming the attackers were not islamists I don’t see how it applies.

    In any event propaganda of the deed is one of the central strategies for terrorism back to the 19th century anarchists. The question is if these attacks were part of a strategy or a one off reaction

  • circonflexe

    Is this not the usual motive behind most terrorist attacks?

    BTW, it is interesting that they did target left-wing anti-racists instead of the actual racists and crypto-racists that we hear more and more in France.

  • People don’t even know why they do some of the most destrucive things they do. There are multiple dimensions to motivation, and conscious as well as unconscious dimensions to motivation. And, as someone above suggested, different parties to the action may be operating with a different motives. In fact, that’s virtually a given.

  • StevoR

    This :

    Is how one truly good, intelligent and compassionate human being and writer responds – and that human individual also happens to be a Muslim too. Respect and seconded by me. Found via rq, a commenter on the Pharyngula blog here who I would thank there were I able to do so. (Due to me messing up and being an arsehole before I cannot.)

  • StevoR

    @22. colnago80 :

    It is not possible to “get along” with radical Muslimes because they are besotted by their vile religion. There’s only one way to “get along” with them, and that’s via implements manufactured by Smith and Wesson (or Glock if you prefer).

    I would agree that the Jihadist terrorists can probably only be destroyed and not reasoned with.

    But .. most Muslim human individuals aren’t like that and can be dealt with just as most Christians are not members of the Westboro cult. I’ve met and got to know a few (more) Muslims and they aren’t what I expected, I knew some Muslims before even too. None of them actually support terrorism or Jihadisim – not the ones I’ve known and know. I don’t think as I once did that they were the rare exceptions to the rule, I now think from further research I was wrong before and the reverse is true and it is the Jihadists who are the exceptions. At least usually and in most places.

    So surely we can find some balance with the majority of good Muslims who don’t think as the terrorist Jihadists do and agree to live with them once they agree to live with us – which I think now – most of them do?

    Kill the ones that we cannot live with who only want to kill us, sure! I’ve no problem with taking out the scumbags who attacked Charlie Hebdo or who lead and /or are active members of Al Quaida, Hamas, Daesh (IS-IS/L), etc ..

    However, most of them though, who are okay as individual human beings? Let them live in peace with us.

    What exactly is wrong with at least giving that a fair go, please?

    PS. “Muslimes?” Really? I do not think that helps your case here. Perhaps twas just a typo and not deliberate. I do think you are better than resorting that.

  • colnago80

    Re StevoR @ #28

    I think that our former Secretary of State George Shultz described the Islamic terrorists most accurately: They’re not even people.

  • AMM

    colnago80 @29

    I think that our former Secretary of State George Shultz described the Islamic terrorists most accurately: They’re not even people.

    And that is what we call terrorist thinking. First convince yourself that the people you are attacking aren’t human, then you may treat them as barbaricly as you wish.

  • lorn

    The source may be unreliable and biased but those traits do not mean there isn’t some truth to what they say. It is one of the root tactics of any guerrilla movement to act in ways that provoke overreaction that will build sympathy for and generally bring a major part of the target population over to the guerrilla’s side. If they can’t build sympathy they will seek to destroy the reputation of the existing power structure. The two goals are often intertwined, parallel, or used concurrently to create a sense of emotional fatigue and moral ambiguity that will envelope both the guerrilla movement and the resisting government.

    The goal is to raise up the legitimacy of the guerrillas so there is rough parity, and then to keep the society from functioning. When the two sides are seen as ethically and morally similar, and the public is fed up with the society not functioning ( a dysfunctional society is a great place to sow moral confusion and recruit vulnerable youths) the guerrilla movement produces a much less violent, pro law and order, good government branch that will step in, restore order, and offer a less uncertain future. Of course this will come with strings. You will be expected to absorb the ideology and religion of the guerrilla group. Enforcement of this will be done in the name of law and order instead of the banner of revolution.

    The violent revolutionary and civil order branches are not mutually exclusive and, typically, they are under direction of the same people. If one looses momentum the other steps in. This exposure can be done by turns to systematically work the population emotionally while building fatigue and resignation. The goal is a compliant and passive population that can still be driven to rage and violence. The tools used to create this sorry state are learned helplessness, which removes control over the vast majority of peoples lives, and identity politics and moral outrage, which fires the one remaining outlet and modality: violently expressing disgust and outrage over how their identity group is treated.

    The two modes work together. Neither the violent, revolutionary wing not the civil order wings seek physical and emotional functionality, The revolutionary wing emphasizes emotional functionality. Notice the aspect of of those committing massacres, they are dirty and physically deprived but emotionally at peace. They are the happy band of brothers. On the other hand the civil branch offer physical sustenance but little emotional comfort. People in this phase relatively secure physically but they are worried and feel emotionally disconnected but always outraged.

    One aspect of this is to build a strong identity with the struggle. This is not people struggling for a functional society, but rather people becoming the struggle. A struggle with no end, and no realistic goal. A struggle that defines them as individuals, society, a people. A struggle that brings nobility and purpose, a struggle that chains them to a Sisyphean task.

    Of course all that is just the view from one side, the idealized plan. The physical/emotional, revolutionary/civil divide is never so clear. In fact in many cases it just sort of happens as a society become all about the struggle and active struggle seeks and builds a resource base. This resource base providing manpower, training, weapons, in typical military logistical fashion, but also an intellectual, emotional, cultural base that underpins the struggle.

    Historically, well run guerrilla movements tend to win because all they have to do is not lose and maintain emotional potency.

    Counter insurgency is a much more complicated and expensive undertaking. That isn’t to say there are not things that work. One key is unemployment, career paths, and a constructive outlet for grievances. In a word: belonging. Guerrillas tend to be recruited from populations of confused, unconnected, disenfranchised youths. If the society doesn’t have a good use for them the guerrillas will. A kid with a job, steady income, career path, and little unanswered resentment against the surrounding society is highly unlikely to be radicalized.