The terrorist attacks in Paris have left the West searching for ways to defeat a patient, adaptable enemy
The slaughter of 17 people in the City of Light in early January was, sad to say, not particularly bloody by the gruesome standards of radical Islamist terrorism. Paris was not even the deadliest scene of the week, which saw up to 2,000 people massacred in Nigeria by the militants of Boko Haram and nearly 40 people killed by what was likely an al-Qaeda car bomb in the capital of Yemen.
But there was something deeply ominous about Paris, and profoundly discouraging. The attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo–and the related killings in a kosher supermarket and on a city street–wove together so many strands of Western failure. The killers were just three among thousands of European Muslims tempted by jihad, some of whom have traveled to the chaotic lands of the Middle East for training in terrorist tactics. Watch-listed by Western intelligence agencies, they simply outlasted the resources and attention span of French authorities. Their targets–a Jewish market and a magazine that didn’t hesitate to offend the pious–were known to be in danger.
And still the terrorists got through. Two of them were dispatched by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group claimed, saying the attack came on the order of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden. A third killer said he was sent by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the throat-cutting militia that emerged in Iraq and flourished in war-torn Syria.
In short, the West, so wealthy and powerful, was whipped in Paris by enemies it has been fighting for years as part of a war that has not ended. And experts warn of more–perhaps worse–to come. The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, Andrew Parker, said in a rare public speech that “a group of core al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass-casualty attacks against the West.” He called an attack in the U.K. “highly likely.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, put 10,000 soldiers and 5,000 police officers on protective duty around vulnerable sites, especially the schools and synagogues of France’s traumatized Jewish community. In Washington, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced stepped-up security measures at airports, government buildings and critical infrastructure targets.
Nearly two decades after the little-known bin Laden declared war on the U.S., violent jihadists are active from the Taliban strongholds of northern Pakistan to the shores of Africa’s Lake Chad and beyond. Once hounded from one outlaw sanctuary to another, they now control territory, or move freely, in at least half a dozen countries. The jihadists have captured arsenals, seized oil fields and emptied bank vaults. They publish online magazines and maintain Twitter accounts–while hacking their adversaries’. On Jan. 12, ISIS supporters briefly took control of the Twitter feed belonging to the U.S. military’s Central Command. ISIS has its own national anthem.
AQAP boasts a propaganda superstar: the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who once pronounced jihad to be “as American as apple pie.” His fluent video sermons continue to inspire militants–the Paris gunmen likely among them–years after his death in a U.S. drone strike. Robert Grenier, in a new book about his service at the top of the CIA’s counterterrorism efforts, sums it up simply: “The forces of global jihad which Osama bin Laden did so much to inspire are stronger than ever.”
And their tactics are evolving. The assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo–in which gunmen cooperated in military style to overcome police security and carry out a series of assassinations–was a far cry from the sadly familiar business of smuggled bombs, suicide missions and lone gunmen targeting Jews. It bore some of the trappings of the 2008 shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai by the radical Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which killed 166 people. As thousands of European Muslims answer the call to jihad in Syria and Iraq, then return home as experienced guerrilla fighters, Europe can expect to see more of this.
Forced to Choose
In this gloomy picture, a bright spot was the sight of more than 40 world leaders marching as part of an estimated 3.7 million people in France–and many more around the world–united against terrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized for failing to show up or send a high-level representative. (In a rare apology, the White House agreed it was a mistake; one senior official said the march came together so quickly that Obama’s aides failed to recognize its symbolic importance.) But even as a mighty throng poured into the Place de la République in Paris, a nagging doubt spread over the scene. The essence of guerrilla warfare is to turn a foe’s strengths into weaknesses. Could the jihadists convert this massive reaction against Islamic violence into a corrosive wave of anti-Muslim politics?
By attacking Charlie Hebdo, a magazine specializing in lurid satire of sacred cows, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi cunningly forced the West to choose between the Muslim sensitivity to cartoon portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad and the secular value of unbridled free expression. Cower or offend: either way, the murderers win. As multitudes marched bearing banners declaring I am Charlie, media outlets around the world republished the cartoons, including a German newspaper in Hamburg that was firebombed in apparent retaliation. The first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the killings had a press run reported at 5 million (compared with its normal run of about 60,000) and sold out in many places.
Yet the fact that the new issue featured a caricature of Muhammad on its cover–crying and holding a sign reading Je Suis Charlie–is sure to alienate even moderate Muslims, who see any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous. Paris may be a small but toxic step toward realizing a terrorist strategy of driving a wedge between Europe’s fast-growing population of Muslims and their still wary neighbors. The ties between Europe and the Middle East run through Istanbul, the Mediterranean and centuries of history, but familiarity hasn’t always translated into mutual respect. Nationalist, populist and anti-immigrant parties are on the rise across Europe, fueled in part by the feeble economy and doubts about the European Union but also by Islamist terrorism. More than 60% of non-Muslim Germans say Islam is incompatible with life in the West, according to a recent survey by the firm Bertelsmann Stiftung. After Paris, the xenophobic PEGIDA movement in Germany (in English the acronym stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) turned out a record crowd of 25,000 for its weekly march through the streets of Dresden, where marchers heaped abuse on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s claim that “Islam belongs to Germany.”
In France, the surging party is the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. The Front garnered more votes than any other French party in last May’s European Parliament elections, and Le Pen predicts that her party will rule France within 10 years. Many analysts believe that the Paris attacks will move voters to embrace her call for greater restrictions on immigration and limits on travel to and from the Middle East. Le Pen agrees: in a phone interview with TIME, she said the unity of the mass marches was impressive but fleeting. “It was a big reaction,” she allowed. “But now it is finished, and the struggle against Islamic extremism has not changed.”
Caught between violence and backlash, Muslims in Europe feel increasingly alienated, says Sara Silvestri, a political scientist at City University London. “They are caught, with fire from all sides. They feel hurt and betrayed” by terrorists who “claim to act in the name of Islam.” And at the same time, “they feel stigmatized and interrogated for something they didn’t do, didn’t think and didn’t wish for.” Such tangled emotions of fear and resentment “perhaps in the long term could be more dangerous to social coexistence than the terrorist acts themselves,” Silvestri concludes.
Further attacks by sleeper cells like the one in Paris threaten to create a vicious cycle in which violence drives fear, fear feeds prejudice, prejudice breeds resentment, and resentment curdles into more violence. Even an inefficient version of this infernal machine can produce a dangerous number of potential terrorists: France alone is home to some 5 million Muslims, many of them poorly integrated. The number of French nationals who have gone to the Middle East to wage violent jihad has already reached some 1,200. Like the Charlie Hebdo attacker Saïd Kouachi, who spent time in Yemen and may have been trained by AQAP, some of them will return home to continue fighting.
How great is that risk? While the threat of terrorism in Europe and the U.S. remains statistically low (lightning bolts kill more Americans yearly than terrorists do), some experts fear that Paris is part of a dangerous trend. Like recent attacks in Boston, Brussels and Ottawa, the assaults in France involved Western-based Islamist radicals, inspired but not necessarily directed by terrorist groups, hitting vulnerable targets for maximum attention. Though minor compared with 9/11, these attacks, says Kenneth Katzman, a longtime terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service, “are less devastating but more frequent and more disruptive because they’re harder to defend against.”
Perhaps Paris is best seen as a bookend to the rise of ISIS last year. Together, the two realities show the gossamer folly behind dreams of winding down the global war on terrorism. The West may be weary after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that fatigue has no counterpart on the other side. In fact, the pace of violent jihad is accelerating. Britain’s Parker said his agency, known as MI5, has disrupted three terrorist plots in recent months–after averaging about one per year for several years–as the chaos in Syria and Iraq sent ripples through nearby Europe. While the West wrestles with misgivings over issues like Guantánamo, waterboarding and NSA surveillance, the enemy operates with patient single-mindedness.
Perhaps that was the most discouraging thing about Paris–the patience involved. The killers evidently waited quietly for years before making their move. To the question of how long this war is going to continue, they answered: As long as it takes.
More than 10 years ago, a budding extremist named Farid Benyettou tried to oust Imam Larbi Kechat from the Addawa mosque in northeast Paris. The French have a long and bloody colonial history in North Africa, and the nation has never been good at integrating its Muslim immigrants. Even the children and grandchildren of immigrants often find themselves stuck in the disadvantaged suburbs–the banlieues défavorisées–of the capital, short on jobs and tempted by crime. At the mosque, Benyettou felt that Kechat and other leaders of the congregation should be more vocal in their opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
“Farid considered that the preachers were not radical enough, so outside the mosque, he delivered his own sermons to the faithful,” says Myriam Benraad, a researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies who has investigated Benyettou’s group. “This message was much more powerful than the message that Kechat was delivering in the mosque.” Though Benyettou failed to elbow the imam aside, he did attract about a dozen disciples, who gathered in Benyettou’s apartment or in the nearby park called Buttes-Chaumont. Similar splinter groups are common enough in the banlieues that they have their own name: les foyers, after the apartment-block entryways where Islamists can often be found preaching.
One of the young men who left the Addawa mosque to follow Benyettou was Chérif Kouachi, then in his early 20s. Raised from an early age in foster care with his older brother, Chérif was adrift. His former lawyer, Vincent Ollivier, was quoted describing Kouachi at the time as “a loser, a delivery boy in a cap who smoked pot and delivered pizzas to buy his drugs. A clueless kid who didn’t know what to do with his life and who, overnight, met people who gave him the impression he was important.”
“That’s when Farid appeared on the scene,” says Benraad. “A janitor, he was part of the same profile”–young French Algerians struggling in dead-end lives–“but already radicalized.” As Chérif himself put it in a 2005 documentary about radical Islamists that aired on the French television channel FR3: “Farid told me that the scriptures offered proof of the goodness of suicide attacks. It is written in the scriptures that it’s good to die a martyr.”
Initially, says Amel Boubekeur, a French sociologist who interviewed Benyettou and several of his followers, the members of Benyettou’s group “were known for being thugs. They had no legitimacy locally,” and the effort to oust the imam came to nothing. But they were galvanized by the leaked photographs of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. “Traumatized by the pictures of Abu Ghraib,” Benraad says, “they wanted to do something.”
In 2005, Chérif was arrested with another man while about to board a plane to travel to Iraq by way of Syria, intent on waging jihad. Chérif was imprisoned on terrorism charges–a dangerous thing to do with a budding radical, because many European prisons have become virtual graduate schools for jihadists. Inside the vast Fleury-Mérogis prison, Chérif and Amedy Coulibaly, the man recently accused of killing a French police officer and four more people at a kosher grocery in Paris, were inmates at the same time. They came under the spell of Djamel Beghal, an al-Qaeda-linked militant serving time for his role in a failed bombing plot. Chérif entered prison a goofy “loser,” according to press interviews with his lawyer, and came out a hardened radical.
It is an alarmingly common pattern. In a 2012 rampage in southern France, Mohamed Merah killed three French soldiers before attacking a Jewish day school, where he murdered four people–including three children. Investigators believe he was radicalized while serving time for violent theft. Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people in a Jewish museum in Brussels last year, studied jihad in jail before traveling to Syria for finishing school. Nor is the prison problem unique to France. Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb in 2001, and Muktar Ibrahim, a key figure in a 2005 London bomb plot, became radicalized in British prisons. In Spain, Mohamed Achraf was doing time for credit-card fraud when he gathered a group of inmates to form a terrorist cell. Leaders of the massive 2004 attack on commuter trains in Madrid were schooled in violent jihad in Moroccan prisons.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the French Justice Ministry played down the problem of prison radicalization, noting that more than 80% of the 152 prisoners currently serving time on terrorism-related charges in France were converted to jihad somewhere other than in prison. But leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2005 cite a warning by French officials that prisons and banlieues were top recruitment zones for radical Islamists. The WikiLeaks cables also refer to a French intelligence report describing radicalized prisoners as “time bombs.”
In 2010, Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly were suspects in a plot with Beghal to engineer the escape of an imprisoned French-Algerian terrorist. Saïd Kouachi would soon embark on the road to terrorism, spending months from 2009 to 2011 meeting with al-Qaeda trainers in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. A journalist there, Mohammed al-Kibsi, told the Associated Press that he met Saïd early in 2010 while Saïd played soccer with a group of children. A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had recently been arrested in Detroit after a failed attempt to destroy an airplane by detonating a bomb hidden in his underwear. Asked about the case, Saïd told the journalist that he had shared an apartment with the so-called underwear bomber as the two men studied the teachings of al-Qaeda’s al-Awlaki.
How did these men, with so many well-known ties to radical Islam, manage to travel back and forth between Paris and Middle East war zones, then arm themselves with Kalashnikov rifles and plot their apparently coordinated attacks? French authorities have cited limited government resources and the need to keep track of hundreds of French Muslims who are drawn to the insurgent cauldrons of Syria and Iraq. Others believe that the open-borders philosophy of the E.U. makes it too easy for terrorists to travel under the radar. What’s more, after the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, terrorists are acutely aware of surveillance techniques. The Paris plotters quietly bided their time until overstretched authorities quit watching them.
So what’s to be done? The list of failed solutions seems to grow longer by the week. Large-scale military invasions: nope. Trillion-dollar nation-building efforts: nope. Capturing, possibly torturing, even killing senior terrorist leaders: nope. Though many of these efforts continue to some degree, none of them have produced the results their authors intended. Partisans will long argue over the blame, but the Western public has rendered its verdict: no more fighting terrorists abroad to avoid fighting them at home, as the once popular saying went.
That leaves fighting them at home. In his harrowing speech on the growing threats in the West, Britain’s MI5 chief Parker urged governments and leading technology companies to renew their frayed partnerships despite public controversy over privacy issues. He argued that intelligence services must continue to have broad backdoor access, constantly updated, to the world’s computer and telecommunications networks–no matter the complaints of privacy advocates. “Changes in the technology that people are using to communicate are making it harder for the [intelligence] agencies to maintain the capability to intercept the communications of terrorists,” Parker said. “Wherever we lose visibility of what they are saying to each other, so our ability to understand and mitigate the threat that they pose is reduced.”
A Pew Research poll in 2014 found the European public solidly opposed to the surveillance program exposed by Snowden–70% were against it in Britain, with some other countries more than 80% opposed. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has said simply that her nation “is not a surveillance state.” But Parker recounted that the first Syria-related terrorism conviction in Britain relied on prosecutors’ intercepting online communication with extremists overseas. “And this is not an isolated incident,” Parker said. “Almost all of MI5’s top-priority U.K. counterterror investigations have used intercept capabilities in some form to identify, understand or disrupt plots.”
But technology alone is not enough. Authorities throughout Europe, alarmed by the rising number of radicalized Muslims, are experimenting with a variety of strategies to identify and track–and perhaps rehabilitate–jihadists before they decide to strike. Finland, for example, has seen the number of radicalized residents with connections to terrorist organizations rocket from a “few tens” in 2011 to more than 200 today, according to Antti Pelttari, director of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service. By some estimates, Finland has sent more foreign fighters to the Middle East, proportionally, than any other country in Europe.
Knowing, as Interior Minister Paivi Rasanen puts it, “that the probability of an attack has increased,” the Finns are adopting a carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with homegrown radicals. A recently signed law makes it a crime to participate in terrorist training. Another measure before Parliament would give police access to all passenger records–air, railway and shipping. “Should we prevent the return of foreign fighters to Finland?” Rasanen asks. “Should we strip them of their passports? Is it possible to take away Finnish nationality for dual citizens?”
At the same time, Finnish police working with government support have adapted a criminal-rehabilitation program called the Anchor to combat growing Islamist radicalism. Participants–who join voluntarily–receive counseling to address feelings of alienation, as well as remedial education and help in finding a job. Right now, only a few returning jihadists have joined the Anchor, but Finnish police expect that to change. By the middle of the year, they intend to add an exit program that will include moderate imams who can provide religious instruction designed to counter the radical indoctrination, while the Finnish intelligence agency quietly monitors each participant’s progress.
The program was inspired by a similar effort in Denmark. Authorities estimate that more than 110 Danes have fought on Syrian battlefields, and roughly half are back in Denmark. One of the hotbeds of Danish radicals is Aarhus, the nation’s second largest city. There, the East Jutland Police have been working since 2007 on an evolving program designed to prevent radicalization and violent extremism.
At the center of the program is Infohus (Information House), a contact point where Danes can make anonymous reports on individuals at risk of radicalization. Infohus then uses its network of parents, outreach workers, social workers, teachers and police to collect intelligence before authorities make their first contact. Most of the cases Infohus looks into involve males between the ages of 15 and 25 who are either deeply concerned about events in the Middle East or socially awkward and searching for community. A small number are petty criminals who see jihad as bestowing a kind of street cred.
Then comes a tailored program: one-on-one counseling, PTSD screening for returning fighters, advice on the risk of prosecution under Danish antiterrorism law and detailed descriptions of the physical and psychological dangers of the jihadi life. Religious leaders intervene. Social agencies offer job training and housing assistance. Families are invited into support groups.
Since the program began, traffic from Denmark to the Syrian conflict has dropped dramatically. Thirty Danes made the trip in 2013, but only one did in 2014.
“Just as there is no one profile of a foreign fighter, so is there no single appropriate response when they return,” says Juha Saarinen, a researcher and partner at the Finnish Middle East Consulting Group. “We need to give authorities a range of tools.”
A range of tools–that is exactly what Western democracies require in the aftermath of Paris. Surveillance tools, financial tools, diplomatic tools, military tools, clandestine tools, education tools, self-defense tools. We have tried charging in, and we have tried backing away. Nothing is left but to reboot and keep searching for the strategy–or strategies–that will turn the tables.
And more than that, the West must find a way to match the radicals in patience. Call it cat-and-mouse, call it whack-a-mole, the war against jihadi violence is a struggle against an enemy that is highly creative in pursuit of destruction. Terrorists will adapt to each adaptation and find a zag for every Western zig. It is an exhausting prospect, but one the West must seize with fresh vigor, lest #jesuischarlie become an epitaph.
–WITH REPORTING BY NAINA BAJEKAL, JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND VIVIENNE WALT/PARIS, SIMON SHUSTER/DRESDEN, LISA ABEND/HELSINKI, CARLA POWER/LONDON, KARL VICK/NEW YORK AND MASSIMO CALABRESI AND ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON