Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo attack: Al-Qaeda, terrorism and Islam

To paraphrase another author of an article about the Charlie Hebdo attack, the West doesn't have a Muslim problem; Islam has a terrorism problem.

The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices was carried out by people claiming to work for Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Since the rise of ISIS in the news over the past year, Al-Qaeda has, comparatively-speaking, dropped off the media radar. The motivation for the attack (and the modus operandi; more on that later) was most obviously about making a simple, terrifying point: to punish those who has "offended" the Prophet, and to terrify others in the West into submission.

A "win-win" situation?

But it must also have been about far more than that as well: the more subtle point would have been to create a ideological fissure in Western society. By orchestrating such a high-profile, almost "surgical" attack at a Western media outlet, the terrorists seemed to have weighed-up the most probable social effects of the attack on Western society.

One, Western society can stand together against this kind of terror and continue life as normal (as powerfully-argued by Simon Jenkins here). Doing this (and by, for example re-publishing the "offensive" cartoons in response etc.) will result in further fuel being given to the extremists, by more clearly identifying the "dissolute" moral freedoms of the West ( i.e. a "win" for the extremists, in their eyes).

Two, Western society can be privately cowed into submission by the terror attacks, as many mainstream media outlets have been for the past ten years (they don't want to get killed, and value their life over their freedom of expression). After the initial anger, this subsides into a "self-censorship" setting that has been in place for some time already. This is precisely what the point of this act of terror was - to terrorise people into accepting the will of the terrorists.

Three, Western society could more carefully identify the issue of "home-grown" terrorism, and the fact that most of the extremists today develop due to flaws in the way that Muslim societies deal with the harsher and more intolerant aspects of their religion (more on why the extremists are winning here). As most of the attacks by Muslim extremists in the world are on fellow Muslims, this clearly a problem across the Muslim world in general, not just in the West.
By doing this in the West, it could cause a "culture war" with Muslim society in general (indeed, this may well already be true), pitting Muslims against each other, as is already happening in the Middle East. While this is an issue that Western governments really need to work in tandem with Muslim elders on, there seems to be little appetite for it at the moment. Again, the extremists may well easily spin this strategy back on the Muslim moderates, by calling them not "true Muslims", as they have been doing already for the last ten years. In short, things may well get bloodier before they better, if this strategy is to work long-term.
The problem here is a question of if Western society (and moderate Islam in general) is, frankly, prepared to pay the "blood price" for fighting against the tyranny of extremism. The people are Charlie Hebdo clearly were prepared to pay the price if need be, and, tragically, they did so.

Four: of course, there may well be an anti-Muslim backlash, as there was after the Lee Rigby killing in London. This is also exactly what the terrorists would wish for, too, for their own reasons.
France is one of Europe's most potentially-explosive social structures, due to the lack of integration between the Muslim community in France and "mainstream" French society. Issues of racism are not far under the surface, and with the recent rise of FN, France must appear an "easy" target for the likes of Al-Qaeda. While the UK can hardly afford to be complacent either about its relations to its large Muslim population (more on that problem here), the British police seem to be much more on the ball than there French counterparts, judging from the number of foiled terror plots compared to actual terror attacks.
With intolerance (i.e. anti Muslim sentiment) on the rise across Europe in general, the question is how to strike the right kind of balance between allowing freedom of religious expression, but preventing intolerance preached by extremists and worse. It looks like it may be a long time before we can square that particular circle.

Regardless of whatever the outcome is, if Western society is not prepared to die for their beliefs if need be, then the freedoms that people died for in Second World War were for nothing, and we have simply exchanged the extremism of the Nazis for the extremism of modern-day Islamofascism. In the modern world, the extremists don't need to invade the West to take over; they simply use the internet, and commit random acts of terror to achieve their aims.

Raising their game?

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, for all that it represented, also was a stark demonstration of the resilience and ingenuity of Al-Qaeda. As said earlier, the rise of ISIS has distracted much of the world's attention from Al-Qaeda. Doubtless, that must have hurt a little of their twisted sense of pride. But equally, the nature of this attack shows that they may well have been spending time to "raise the game".
As analysts and witnesses have stated, it bears the hallmarks of being a military-like operation: less a "terror act" than a "pinpoint strike" against a carefully-selected target. It was almost as though they had learned strategies from some of the anti-terror operations they have suffered in recent years from Western covert-ops. They knew exactly where, who and when to strike to achieve maximum effect. The fact that they timed their attack to coincide with a meeting when all the key staff would be there in one place shows a chillingly-efficient manner to their operation.

This attack is a game-changer in showing what the capabilities are of Al-Qaeda affiliates in 2015, and how they are an organisation that learns from its enemies. The question is: how to react? As explained in the scenarios above, none of the options provide an easy answer, and all possible strategies then may well provide some kind of succour to the extremists in one way or another, at least in the short-term.

The ball is in our court.

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