The Kouachi brothers’ assassination attack on the editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo killed twelve.
The next day with the Kouachi’s on the run, Amedy Coulibaly assassinated a French policewoman and subsequently took hostages at a kosher grocery in Paris. Four hostages were killed.
The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were well-acquainted with each other. Based on statements made by the murderers it would seem the Kouachis self-identified with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while Coulibaly, at least most recently, had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
The connections between these three men and their relationships with AQAP, IS, or other extremist organizations will take time to carefully trace. It is not yet clear, for example, if others had any operational control, or even prior knowledge, of the attack.
“Is this a Mumbai or a Boston?” We don’t know yet. (Though some early signals lean toward a more-connected, less free-lance relationship with terrorist nodes.)
All three assailants were well-known to French police and other Western security agencies. All had criminal records. All had publicly expressed sympathy with terrorist organizations and ideology. At some point, all had been under surveillance. So are over 1600 French citizens. The potential threats far exceed the resources reasonably available to maintain some balance between security and due process.
I am surprised we have not seen more Mumbais and Bostons (or we might say, Bed-Stuys and Utoyas). These lone-wolf or small wolf-pack attacks are very difficult to prevent. For twisted egos they practically guarantee mass-media validation. Jim Bittermann at CNN commented: Chérif Kouachi was a failed soccer player and a failed rap artist who finally found a way to claim our attention.
As long predicted, one of the blow-backs of the Syrian civil war will almost certainly be some increase in deadly events of this sorts. Several thousand egos are being simultaneously abused and inflamed. But — none of those killing and finally killed last week were veterans of that conflict. There is even evidence that close encounters with the self-styled Caliphate have disillusioned many Western volunteers.
Intelligence operations, border controls, law enforcement vigilance and prosecutorial attention can help contain these threats. The mid-December Lindt Cafe hostage taking in Sydney probably could have been prevented under new legislation that took effect on New Years Day. Coulibaly could have still been in prison for his last offense, but he was released early. There is, however, no full-proof way to prevent these sort of small-scale operations. Bigger more complicated efforts are much more likely to “leak” in a way we will notice. Even then to recognize the risk we require considerable expertise and just about as much luck.
In calendar year 2002, 1119 people were murdered in France. In 2012 the number had fallen to 665. Last week was horrific. Last week’s number was not — sadly — significantly outside historical proportions. On the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attack thirty-seven Yemeni police recruits were killed by what is widely assumed to be an AQAP vehicle bomb. But this other mass-murder does not surprise us.
Of course it is not just the number of dead that matters. We are horrified by how the targets were selected and the manner in which they were killed. The French Premier, Manuel Valls, proclaimed, in most English translations, “We are at War.” But here is the complete quote (and my personal translation).
Nous faisons une guerre, pas une guerre contre une religion, pas une guerre de civilisation, mais pour défendre nos valeurs, qui sont universelles. C’est une guerre contre le terrorisme et l’islamisme radical, contre tout ce qui vise à briser la solidarité, la liberté, la fraternité.
(We make war, but not a war against a religion, not a war of civilizations, but to defend our values, which are universal. It is a war against terrorism and radical Islam, against everything that aims to shatter solidarity, liberty, fraternity.)
Next month the United States will host a long-planned — but just calendared – international conference on counter-terrorism. The purpose of the February 18 session is to “better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad,’’ the White House said. Even if we could fully understand the root causes, I’m not persuaded this knowledge would allow us to consistently identify and/or prevent. Besides, the root causes are complicated, even by-the-textbook complex.
It seems to me that humanity is trying to adapt to a broad-based social revolution that began more or less four centuries ago and has been accelerating, gyrating, imploding and exploding ever since. Some places and people have adapted reasonably well, others quite badly.
All of the great religions (inherently conserving institutions) have been challenged and changed by this great transformation. Islam has been undergoing its own “reformation” for at least the last century. The contemporary convulsion in many Muslim states and between strands of Islam can be compared to the collision of a great flood with a great rock. The flood does not stop. The rock persists. The water may swamp the rock or be diverted by the rock or build-up behind the rock until spilling over it. The rock may even be carried with the flood until it is deposited far downstream. In any case, big rocks and fast water are a dangerous combination.
We are — especially if we are weird (western educated industrial rich democratic) — a part of this flooding. Those less-weird who are threatened by the flooding may view us as the cause of their distress. There are also some who have attempted to ride the waves of this cascade, nearly drowned, and were barely saved by a last-chance grasp for edges of the rock. These are especially inclined to curse us and attempt to change the course of this flooding. (Shakespeare puts the lines used as today’s title in the mouth of Brutus, friend and assassin of Caesar. A very complicated character.)
Is this war? Both war and guerre (the French term) are derived from the Old High German werra meaning confusion, perplexing, disarray, strife, and quarrel. So yes, we all make war.
But I will also share that last Friday a French friend wrote me, “It is just terrorism.”
I thought she might be saying something in English that had a nuanced meaning in French. But when I asked, she wrote, “No, this phrasing has nothing to do with French at all. I said this on purpose but I didn’t have time to explain why. I feel that it is very important to reduce those thugs to what they are, terrorists. This isn’t Islam, this isn’t a cause. This is nothing. Nothing but sheer terrorism in the name of absolutely nothing. When put in such a context we can make different moral judgments and we can rebound more easily. It doesn’t change the course of anything. It is murder for the sake of murder.”