The Charlie Hebdo attack raises a number of pressing concerns; however, its implications for the wider terrorist threat cannot be fully understood until key questions about the perpetrators are answered.
On 7 January the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were gathered for their weekly editorial meeting when masked gunmen entered the office and opened fire, killing ten of those present and two police officers during their escape. At the time of writing the gunmen have not been apprehended, nor has responsibility for the attack been claimed. However, eye-witness reports and footage from the scene indicate that the gunmen shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’, clearly indicating that this was an Islamist terrorist assault.
This is not the first attack on the magazine, which is well known for its satirical and often controversial pieces. In November 2011 its offices were destroyed in a petrol bomb attack following the announcement that the Prophet Muhammed would act as ‘editor–in-chief’ for an upcoming issue. It had previously attracted criticism in 2006 after reprinting the cartoons that first appeared in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, depicting the Prophet Muhammed as a terrorist. Stéphane Charbonnier, the magazine’s editor and a victim in the most recent attack, had long been listed as an Al-Qa’ida target for assassination.
The incident will reinforce fears that France faces a growing terrorist threat. In July 2014 it emerged that a plot to target a major Paris landmark had been disrupted in its early stages, while apparently unrelated attacks in Nantes, Dijon and Tours resulted in multiple casualties in December 2014. What’s more, members of the terrorist group ISIS have explicitly called for attacks in France as retaliation for its role in airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.
The latest attack is the deadliest terrorist incident in the country since 1961, and raises pressing operational concerns for the French authorities. The most urgent is the location of the perpetrators. This may prove to be an isolated incident, but until they are apprehended the possibility of further attacks cannot be discounted.
The apparent capability of the gunmen is highly significant. Reports suggest they appeared calm, used automatic weapons with confidence and precision, and were able to evade capture despite police presence at the scene. These represent considerable differences to the incidents in December, which appeared to lack comparable planning or preparation. In Nantes and Dijon attackers drove their vehicles at pedestrians, while in Tours the assailant injured three police officers with a knife before being shot. The calculated attack and escape at Charlie Hebdo stands in stark contrast.
At the time of writing, French authorities have named brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi as suspects in the investigation, French citizens of Algerian decent. As speculation ends and information starts to surface regarding their connections to terrorist networks, the wider implications for the threat picture – in France and across Europe – will come into sharper focus. Following the incident, immediate questions were, are the attackers are returning mujahedeen from Syria or Iraq? Are they first, second or third-generation immigrants, or converts to Islam? As the answers now begin to emerge we will be able to determine the extent to which concern should focus on domestic radicalisation, on European residents joining conflicts overseas, or on terrorists being among those migrating to western Europe (as happened during the 1990s).
This attack at Charlie Hebdo will be perceived as further evidence of an evolving terrorist threat, with emphasis shifting from complex bomb plots, requiring significant transnational planning and command and control, towards attacks using knives or guns, possibly mounted with little or no external direction. The success of security services in the UK and beyond in disrupting large-scale plots certainly appears to have forced a tactical change. However, while the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013, the armed attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014 and the December 2014 attacks in France achieved their horrific aims, the perpetrators demonstrated limited skill and experience. The attack at Charlie Hebdo appears strikingly different in planning and execution, and although important questions remain unanswered, that is immediately a cause for concern.