France – ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: France’s worst terrorist attack in a generation leaves 12 dead’ (Telegraph, 2015)

By Dominic Dyer (2016-17)

Analysis of ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: France’s worst terrorist attack in a generation leaves 12 dead’ (The Telegraph, 7th January 2015)

Event Summary and Article analysis

On the morning of 7th January 2015, two gunmen walked into the offices of notorious satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire on many of its employees, leaving 12 people dead. The attack was labelled one of “indescribable barbarity” by the media and subsequently too ‘the worst terrorist attack on French soil in a generation’ (Rayner, Samuel and Evans, Telegraph: 2015). The Article imposes the label of terrorism immediately by labelling the attack ‘terrorist’ in the sub-headline (Ibid). The article also uses very emotive language using words such as ‘ruthless’ to perhaps to create a somewhat violent and brutalised image of the perpetrators (Ibid). The article also lays out the Islamic descent of the perpetrators and references their remarks of “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great” which hints at the involvement of extremist religion in the attack (Ibid). However aside from this, the report seeks to simply lay out the facts of the event and the timeline of which it took place and unfolded. In this paper, I will dissect the motives, legitimacy and underlying causes of the attack as well as analysing the success and adequacy of the responses to the attack and whether more could have been done beforehand to prevent this act of violence.

Defining Terrorism

In order to label an event or act of violence terrorism, it is vital that we give necessary consideration and clarity to how we define terrorism and the attributes that contribute to this definition. This is an issue that has created considerable debate amongst academics in political discourse and Martin summarizes this effectively by stating how there is “some consensus among experts but no unanimity on what kind of violence constitutes an act of terrorism” (Martin, 2016: 27). This adequately displays the complexities of defining such a thorny term. In order to provide a succinct and definitive framework to this essay, I shall assume the definition of the US Department of Defense who class terrorism as “The unlawful use of, or threatened use of, force or violence against individuals or property to coerce and intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious or ideological perspectives” (Martin, 2016: 29). However in the case of this particular attack the argument for it being labelled as terrorist is compelling to say the least and a vast majority of other definitions would most likely include it. The attacks used force with the intention of intimidating people and the French government and there were religious and ideological traits at play so therefore it can be classified as terrorist here. Bearing this in mind, it is fair to say that the article is justified when labelling the attack as terrorist and that it does not occur as a result of a narrow minded western scope or point of view.

Motivations for the attack

The report does not give any real consideration to the motives of the perpetrators so in order to understand it we must look elsewhere. In order to truly grasp the crucial motivator for the attack, we must try and decipher whether or not religion plays a primary role and if not, what else is at play? There are a few critical aspects that can help us determine how prominent an issue religion truly is here. Martin describes a primary motive as something that exists right at the “core of an extremist group’s agenda” (Martin, 2016: 135). When the attack was claimed by Al Qaeda in the Yemen in their video, they make it abundantly clear that their fanatical religious beliefs are at the forefront of the reasons for the attack. The man speaking, named Nasr Al-Ansi,  refers to the incident as “the blessed battle of Paris” highlighting how they see it as a holy event and he also goes on to say how they have ‘avenged the prophet and sent a message to anyone who dare attack Islam’ (Al-Jazeera: 2015). The most notorious and prominent example of these alleged attacks was in February 2014 when a cover photo picturing a Muslim holding the Koran was published with the caption “The Koran is crap, it doesn’t stop bullets” (National Secular Society: 2014). Gunaratna also gives weight to the opinion of religion being primary to Al-Qaeda’s attacks by stating how it is “founded on the pursuit of Islamism and the pursuit of a Jihad”, which is a holy war (Gunaratna, 2002: 84). However there are more factors involved than simply faith. In the video, Al-Ansi cites the French government’s idea of free speech and its contradictory elements as a source of anger and a motivator (Saul, Independent: 2015). This gives us an insight into alternative motivating factors and displays the issue to be far more complex than simply radicalised religion.

What category of Political violence does the attack fall under?

Acts of political violence can fall under different types of category and in this case there are numerous categories that the Charlie Hebdo attack classifies as. Under Gus Martin’s guidelines, the act falls under religious terrorism as it was motivated by “an absolute belief that an otherworldly power has sanctioned and commanded” (Martin, 2016: 32). Secondly it can be classed as a dissident terror as Al Qaeda in the Yemen are a “non-state movement” committing acts “against governments or other perceived enemies” (Martin, 2016: 31). It would also classify as International terror under Martin’s work as it has “spilled over onto the world’s stage” (Martin, 2016: 32). It can be argued the religiously motivated anger and the mocking cartoons of Islam was the predominant causation here. The international element is also significant as Charlie Hebdo is a French publication but the chief causation of conflict was down to religious offence and extremism so this must be classed as the primary role.

Underlying Causes

However to truly appreciate and evaluate the true impact and consequences of the attack, one must look deeper into the possible long-term causations and potential underlying issues that have contributed to this public act of violence. In the video claiming the attack, Al-Ansi speaks of French atrocities committed in Mali and how France’s attempts to annihilate the Muslim race in Central Africa has led to this act of violence (Saul, Independent: 2015). After the French bombed Mali in 2013, it became the eighth country in just four years where western attacks had resulted in the death of multiple Muslims (Greenwald, Guardian: 2013). However if we look further into this matter, French involvement goes deeper than just simply Mali and Central African nations. Gunaratna examines how prior to 9/11, France was perceived as the “principal enemy” due to its funding and support of “anti-Islamist governments of North Africa” (Gunaratna, 2002: 121). Gunaratna goes further to pinpoint Algeria as a specific example where France actively assisted in the prevention of an Islamist government coming to power democratically in 1991 (Ibid). A consistent trend of western involvement in foreign territory and diplomacy is present and both can easily be labelled as underlying causes to this attack as it has been continual for more than 20 years and has clearly created a vast amount of hatred amongst several Muslim extremists.

Perhaps more fundamental still is the underlying issues that have originated in France itself and a primary issue critical to discuss is the shortcomings of Laicite and secularism in recent times and the conditions of Islamophobia and feelings of resentment that these have given rise to. Sociologist Emmanuel Todd argues the attack was not aimed at freedom of speech but at the notion of secularism and uses the movement ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and described it as “a totalitarian flash” that drowned out dissenting voices (Forest, Transformation: 2016). As of 2010, Pew research centre reported there to be around 4.7 million Muslims in France which was calculated to consist of 7.5% of the French population. Vaisse and Laurence add that immigrations has never been a “calm and peaceful process” (Vaisse and Laurence, 2006: 50). As the rapid immigration has progressed, so too has “everyday racism” (Vaisse and Laurence, 2006: 51). Fernando argues how Islam has been portrayed as “antagonistic to Laicite in France” thus potentially justifying a more racist environment to some in France (Fernando, 2014: 20). Wolfreys also states that the problem of Islamic discrimination is worse in France than its neighbouring powerhouses stating how 37% of Muslims in France claim to have experienced negative encounters compared to 28% in Britain and 19% in Germany (Wolfreys, 2013). It can be argued such figures stem from insufficient government action and there is widespread feeling that their perception of secularism and pursuit of a French national identity is increasing Islamophobic sentiments (Ibid). In February 2005, the French government introduced a policy that forced schools to paint a positive light of French colonial occupation especially in North Africa, areas with high contingents of Muslims (Ibid). Policies like this are more focused on encouraging nationalising the country and whilst this is not an unreasonable argument, it is clearly giving rise to division and racist behaviour against those who don’t necessarily choose to identify as French or have a belief system that demands certain life habits and Islam is a valid case study here. Summarised by Dunt, “The Charlie Hebdo attack didn’t create the divisions between Muslims and mainstream French society, it merely exacerbated those which were already there” (Dunt, Politics UK: 2016).

The problem of unemployment amongst immigrant populations is central to the inadequate integration processes and an area where the French government have failed develop issues. As of 1999, 22% of immigrants were unemployed and with women migrants this increased to 25% (Laurence and Vaisse, 2006: 32). Whilst the government has tried to improve these figures, their efforts have suffered shortcomings. The National Academy of Sciences in the US found that on average, household Muslim incomes were “400 Euros less than Christian households each month, the equivalent of 15% of the average monthly income or 17% of the median monthly income for France in 2007” (Ladida, Laitin and Valfort, 2010: 4). Evidence has also suggested that “those with ‘non-French’ names are systematically discriminated against when applying for jobs” (Wolfreys, 2013).The evidence here show not just how there is a lack of equality amongst religious minorities but how Muslims are the primary sufferers. Conditions such as poverty and lack of welfare have been known to lead to issue such as crime but more importantly, make alternative ways of living more attractive and this increases chances to radicalise disadvantaged, impressionable youths who are not looking at a future of any prosperity or hope. Henceforth unemployment amongst minority groups must become a priority of the government and has played a part here in the causation of continued integrations problems.

This debate over identity is crucial in order to explain and understand the reasons behind the attack. Failing integration of minority groups leaves many feeling cut off from the society they reside in and seeking an alternative which is where the problem of radicalisation and extreme faith commonly rises to the fore. A prominent example of a breeding ground in this case is prisons. Neumann states how prisons represent “a place of vulnerability” that brings together people experiencing “social isolation and personal crises” (Neumann, 2010: 26). The theme of personal crises and social isolation seem to apply to the Kouchai brothers experiencing parental abandonment at the age of 10 (Chrisafis, Guardian: 2015). Neumann adds more stating how the “two motivations that are most likely to make inmates susceptible to new faith and belief systems – including extremist and militant interpretations of Islam – are the search for meaning and identity” (Neumann, 2010: 26). They experienced most of their childhood in foster care in Rennes before moving to Paris (Higgins and De La Baume, NY Times: 2015). There, a report states they resided in a section of the 19th arrondissement described as “deprived” and surrounded by “gang turf wars” (Chrisafis, Guardian: 2015). Not only does this help explain their conversion to radicalisation, it provides evidence that highlights the crippling problem in France of integrating religious minorities and how that only serves to increase the likelihood of radicalisation among disenfranchised youths.

Was the attack legitimate?

Before we delve into whether or not the attack was legitimate, it is important to recognise a few key problems that occur when deciding when something should be classed as legitimate or not. The term legitimacy is a particularly tricky one to define as it means different things to different groups of people. The quote “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” as used by Martin highlights this issue aptly as behind most terrorist attacks is “a deeply held belief system” that motivates the perpetrators (Martin, 2016: 23-24). In this case, the belief system in question is the Islamic faith and the perpetrators believe they are part of a holy war destined to end with them being welcomed home by their superior God Allah in their afterlife. However there are many different religious belief systems out there so in order to truly analyse the legitimacy of this particular attack, I will use the ‘Just war doctrine’ and its commandments ‘jus in bello and ‘jus in bellum’ as my authority (Martin, 2016: 8). ‘Jus in bello’ refers to the correct behaviour whilst waging war whereas ‘jus ad bellum’ refers to the obtaining the correct conditions for waging war in the first place (Ibid). The criteria of ‘jus in bello’ is where the perpetrators actions are de-legitimised here is by the loss of civilian life. Whilst it is true that they had clear targets to in mind prior to the attack, there were innocent people killed including a caretaker who it is likely had no relation to Charlie Hebdo publishing content (BBC, 2015). The doctrine specifically states that ‘just’ attack prohibit “intentional attacks on civilian targets” so this is an effective way of de-legitimising the attack and its method (O’Brien, International Law Studies: 193). A potential counter-argument to this stance would be to refer to ‘jus ad bellum’ as the attackers could potentially claim have met the criteria for this aspect. They would claim the war has been started by French atrocities committed in Mali and because of such they are within their rights to retaliate in the manner that they see fit. However past actions do not simply justify more violence in return and we can compellingly disprove the organisation’s claims of legitimacy by referring to their direct point of authority in the Qur’an. As translated, a quote states “do not kill a soul that God has made” (Cole, 2013). This directly conflicts with the actions taken by those who deem themselves so loyal to the very religion they are seen here to be contradicting. Along with the just war doctrine, enough evidence is provided to suggest in fact that this attack lacks credible legitimacy.

Government responses – how effective were they?

As the report describes, it was “the worst terrorist attack in a generation” on French soil and caused widespread fear and sadness amongst citizens (Rayner, Samuel and Evans, Telegraph: 2015). Before dissecting the official governmental actions in the aftermath to the attacks, it is worth touching upon and analysing the effect of the immediate symbol and slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ that swarmed global media outlets in the days following the attack. It translates as ‘I am Charlie’ and aims to refer to the concept of unity and show how the this is an attack on not just France but the values of democracy and free speech that are cornerstones of a large scope of society. Whilst this movement brought millions of people together in solidarity and hope, it could be argued the responses of arrests to people defending the attack contradict the very values of free-speech that the French republic claims to represent so vehemently. Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested shortly after the attack for a social media post stating how he “felt like Coulibaly”, the other gunman involved in the attacks over the three days (Guardian, 2015). It could be argued here how this is a contradiction of free speech as this man was simply sharing his opinion and its supposed support of terrorism has led to his arrest. Since the attacks in Paris later on in 2015, 69 people have been arrested for “speech acts defending, condoning or provoking terrorism” (Adler-Bell: 2015). An eight year old boy in Nice was questioned by police after reportedly defending the gunmen (Ibid). Adler-Bell summarises the issue rather poignantly as he states “everyone has the right to free-speech; unless they don’t” (Ibid). These events show the clear divisions in France that exist and how the government’s actions are potentially worsening these divisions. Whilst the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has given hope to millions, it is worth considering how that message may potentially be alienating sections of the population further who simply share different opinions and viewpoints on the matter of free speech and what they believe in.

In the immediate official aftermath, the government implemented immediate changes to aspects such as Intelligence and security in order to increase surveillance on potential targets comparable to the perpetrators (Lantier, 2015). Prime Minister at the time Manuel Valls unveiled a new anti-terror law, creating 2680 new positions in the French military and order the enhancement of surveillance of an approximate sum of 3000 people (Lantier, 2015). Valls also ordered the mobilization of several troops around France as another immediate pre-caution with over 100,000 troops mobilized (Ibid). Several months after the attacks, the government stepped up its attacks on the Islamic state by deploying further troops in the Islamic Maghreb and launching fresh attacks on Syria (Haddad, Foreign Policy: 2015). Whilst evident that the attack has increased governmental urgency in the field of counter-terrorist operations, one could easily argue the responses have not proved sufficient. Since the Charlie Hebdo fatalities, Paris and Nice have been on the end of far worse attacks, both claimed by extremist Islam groups and has seen a combined total of 231 people killed in the three attacks (Boukanoun, Euronews: 2016). However one must severely question whether more could have been done to prevent this attack in the run-up to it.  Cherif Kouachi had spent 3 years imprisoned for suspected terrorism after he was detained when suspected to be leaving for Iraq to be radicalised (Higgins and De La Baume, NY Times: 2015). When he returned to Paris, he and his brother resided together and even when neighbours noticed a build of weapons and arms in their apartment, they said nothing (Joshi, BBC: 2015). The lack of surveillance that was put on a known terror suspect after his return to France is looks a damning assessment of French intelligence. However we must be cautious in labelling the French intelligence system as being incompetent as it is exceptionally difficult to monitor every possible threat. Haddad speaks about this issue in his piece, stating how security agencies are becoming increasingly “overwhelmed” by the challenge they face (Haddad, Foreign Policy: 2015). French intelligence has clearly made efforts to increase their surveillance on potential terror outlets since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. However the evidence here suggests the problem is one that will require more than simply increased intelligence. It indicates that a growing contingent of disenfranchised youth is forming amongst society in France and to solve this will most likely require a thorough re-examination and improvement of integration policies for these Muslim orientated communities. The argument for this being the issue that lies at the heart of divisions in France is compelling and tackling this is where the government has failed in the past and must look to rectify if future attacks are to be avoided.

Did the terrorists achieve their goals?

In order to answer this question, we must first acknowledge that there were multiple aims of the attackers and the degree to which aims were achieved will of course vary. The most simplistic aim of the terrorists was to murder certain members of the magazine who they deemed the enemy and responsible for the anti-Islamic cartoons. On their hit-list was magazine editor Stephane Charbonnier and he was killed in this attack (Lynch, IB Times: 2015). On this basis, the aim of the perpetrators was achieved but it must be realised there were added objectives than simply the murder of one individual. The French government’s response of attacks in Syria and the Islamic Maghreb is a good example. Whilst these attacks may decrease the short-term effects and progress of extremist organisations such as Al Qaeda, it could be argued further Western intervention in these areas under Islamic influence have only added to their base of support due to the proof of western violence in retaliation. This could easily be argued as the attack on Charlie Hebdo being a success. However a valid counter-argument for this lies with Al-Ansi’s video claiming the attack where he directly states how Al-Qaeda wish for western forces “leave our lands and stop “plundering our resources” indicating how the intention of the attack was purely to try and force western troops out of African areas with strong Islamic populations (Saul, Independent: 2015). In this respect, it can be argued that the terrorists have not succeeded in their aims due to the continued intervention by western forces. It can also be argued that the perpetrators have succeeded to an extent due to a subsequent increase in media censorship since the attacks. France has traditionally maintained the use of “free media and independent journalism” but this has been cut down in the wake of attacks in 2015 attacks (Freedom House, 2016). The National Assembly adopted legislation after the November attacks allowing the government to block and censor further internet searches and access (Ibid). This can be seen as a victory for the perpetrators as France are contradicting values such as’ freedom of expression’ that Hollande stated his support for post attack directly due to the attacks (Thomas, Reuters: 2015).

Conclusion and Article evaluation

The article does not attempt any explanation or analysis of the potential underlying causes of the attack nor does it attempt to explain the perpetrators potential subjective motivations. It is purely an informative article aiming to report the happenings of the event as accurately as possible from the perspective of which it writes which is of a western world having been viciously attacked by Islamic terrorists working for the wider organisation of ‘Al-Qaeda’ (Rayner, Samuel and Evans, Telegraph: 2015). Since the article is published on the same day as the event, it is perhaps more credible that the article does not try to dissect the potential motivations and underlying causes due to the fact that there may well have been a lot of unknown information still yet to come to light. The article does rather brutalise the terrorists in its language but this is also to be expected as it is a western publication and as we have decided above, this was not an attack of any real legitimacy. Furthermore the article labels them “terrorists” to many is subjective but given the definition I have decided to use and the actions undertaken by the perpetrators, this is clearly an appropriate label for them and thus does not bring the validity and quality of the article into question (Ibid).


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One thought on “France – ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: France’s worst terrorist attack in a generation leaves 12 dead’ (Telegraph, 2015)

  1. This is an excellent essay which demonstrates very good understanding of the case study and perceptive critical thinking. It builds on a very wide range of relevant sources which it deploys well. It is very well structured, very well written, and very well referenced.

    At the same time, some angles of analysis could have perhaps been explored in a little more critical depth or a little more fully. For instance, the discussion of legitimacy is rather rushed and lacking rigour. The essay could have also perhaps considered the aim shared by many jihadi groups to polarise Western Muslims and goad Western governments into deeper, costly and counter-productive involvement in Muslim countries. The precise role of religion could have also been considered in further critical depth, including by considering where the arguments of the attackers sit for most other Muslims. Perhaps the essay could have also reflected on the presence of a number of controversial world leaders at the demonstration on the Sunday after the attack.

    Still, on the whole, this is an excellent analysis, reflecting originality, insight and mastery of the topic, demonstrating critical enough reading of an extensive range of texts, built on independent research, and putting forth a persuasively articulated argument.


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