I woke today to appalling news of an atrocity in Paris. Black-clad gunmen stormed the office of a popular magazine, assassinating journalists. In truth, I was not surprised, given the rising wave of terrorism in France recently; like many in the counterterrorism community, I’ve been expecting professional-style attacks of this kind in Europe, but this news cannot fail to shock.
The story is only now coming into focus but the killers remain at large, at this hour, while at least a dozen victims are confirmed dead, including two policemen, one of whom was murdered execution-style, based on graphic footage. The target was Charlie-Hebdo, a left-wing magazine known for skewering sacred cows of many breeds, including Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Four cartoonists who were especially reviled by extremists are confirmed dead, and the assassins are reported to have asked for them by name: think of this a jihadist version of “targeted killing.”
The real question I have, as someone who has followed jihadist terrorism in Europe, as both a scholar and practitioner, for a couple decades, is: How could anyone be surprised by this? Jihad-watchers, with quiet nods from European officials, have been warning for years about the mayhem to come when the thousands – yes, thousands – of Europeans fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria return home angry, skilled at killing, and well-armed.
Moreover, assassinating Europeans who “insult Islam” is hardly new. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch journalist-cum-provocateur who was indelicate in his attacks on Islam, was butchered on the streets of Amsterdam by an angry teenager with a knife back in 2004. A decade later, the masked killers are clad in black, bearing Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – a marked jump in professionalism and firepower, but the intent remains the same.
Watching on-scene video, it’s clear that the assassins today did not learn how to scoot-and-shoot on the Internet. Yet even then, the idea of well-armed, hardened jihadist killers coming back to France to cause murderous mayhem isn’t ripped from today’s headlines – it was going on fully twenty years ago.
As I’ve explained in detail, back in 1995 French jihadists returned from the battlefields of Bosnia, where they were fighting with al-Qa’ida-linked units, to bring the jihad home. They pulled off several impressive armed robberies in the French-Belgian border region – they were stealing to get funds for terrorism – and the police had a tough time catching up with what they called the Roubaix Gang. When they finally did, the jihadists, who had an abundance of automatic weapons and were better armed than the cops, chose to go down in fire and glory rather than surrender. Their leader, the charismatic convert Lionel Dumont, alone escaped death, managing to evade capture for the better part of a decade by escaping to the global jihadist underground in a manner that has never fully been explained.
Despite the fact that the Roubaix Gang was all over the French media twenty years ago, not least because they came close to blowing up the G7 meeting in Lille, the story did not result in much examination of what was going on with heavily armed French citizens trying to bring jihad-of-the-sword home. The story disappeared down the memory hole and became something polite people did not want to discuss.
The trend has continued to the present day. The butchering of Jewish children and French servicemen by a self-styled jihadist was treated as an unpleasant one-off, while the rise of a young French convert to a position of power in the Islamic State in Syria has been considered more a curiosity than an alarming portent. Too many Europeans have been eager to dismiss all this as “random” or “senseless” and, at worst, the by-product of “racism” and “failures of assimilation.” Officials have sung the same tune in public, with the recent wave of car-terrorism in France being dismissed as having absolutely nothing to do with Islamism or radicalism.
The painful truth is that France today, like much of Europe, faces a profound crisis, as thousands of European Union citizens are waging jihad abroad, most of whom will eventually come home more radical and more proficient at killing. Historical patterns suggest that only five to ten percent of these returnees will engage in terrorism at home, but given the unprecedented numbers of Europeans – there were platoons of Europeans fighting in Bosnia twenty years ago; today there are whole battalions in Syria and Iraq — now serving in the ranks of the fanatical Islamic State, there is no comfort found there.
French intelligence is competent and, behind closed doors, has a realistic understanding of this threat, but they are overwhelmed and constrained by timid political masters. The scary truth is that many EU countries now face a wave of returning jihadists that no European security service can hope to monitor and deter with any degree of confidence, based on existing laws and norms. The full story of today’s atrocity will take time to emerge, but we can be sure that the details will not be comforting to progressives and bien-pensants, who per custom will attempt to play down the ugly reality. As someone who recently predicted more terrorism in Europe in 2015, some of it sure to be “mysterious,” I hate to be right so soon in this new year.
It does not help realistic debate that Europeans who try to discuss this threat are routinely shut down and marginalized, to use a favorite progressive term, by mainstream forces who desperately seek no debate at all. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel castigated fellow citizens, the so-called PEGIDA movement, who since the autumn have been peacefully protesting against Islamization and radicalism. They are racists who have no place in a democratic society, the chancellor made clear, and on cue Germany’s great and good – politicos, magnates, celebrities, clerics – backed Merkel in her public effort to silence PEGIDA.
Therefore the only winner in today’s atrocity is Vladimir Putin and his European friends. As I’ve noted for some time, right-wing friends of the Kremlin are the only force in Europe that has consistently and unapologetically sought to address rising public concerns about jihadism in their midst, while mainstream parties have surrendered the field on this vital issue to people on Putin’s payroll. After today, Marine Le Pen, whose condemnation of Islamism and affection for Putin seem equally sincere, may wish to start planning her inauguration party as president of France. You can be sure her friend from Moscow will have a seat of honor.
UPDATE (1130 EST, 7 JAN): Video of the assassins includes audio of one of the terrorists speaking something that sounds an awful lot like Russian (my Russian is good, but more importantly several native speakers have said this sounds like Russian to them too); given the explosive nature of this revelation, it would be wise to wait for official voice analysis before conclusions are jumped to. That said, counterintelligence hands who know the Russians will recall that the Kremlin has a long history of using Chechen agents in false-flag terrorism going back two decades.
UPDATE (1205 EST, 7 JAN): Since I’ve heaped scorn on European politicos who refuse to seriously address the issue of jihadism, it bears noting that today, when asked about the Paris atrocity, White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to say if it was terrorism. This from the administration that called the Fort Hood attack an “incident of workplace violence.” Seriously, if executing journalists to silence them does not count as terrorism, I’m not sure what does. Eternal shame on Obama and his minions here.
UPDATE (1615 EST, 7 JAN): French media have identified the three suspects in today’s attack, who as of this hour remain at large: Saïd Kouachi (born 1980), Chérif Kouachi (born 1982, and who appeared in a 2008 AP story about support for the Iraqi jihad), Hamyd Mourad (born 1996): they are of Algerian background, and lived in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine). The Kouachis have substantial police records — and, one expects, thick files with French intelligence — and are rumored to have recently returned from Syria. More soon ….