France – ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror’ (BBC, 2015)

By David Nti (2016-17)

Analysis of ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror’ (BBC, 14th January 2015)

This essay will be critically analysing the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is a pejorative term, however I will be defining it as; “The use or threat of violence on soft targets to intimidate or coerce people in the pursuit of political or social objectives” (Nti D 2016:1). I will look into a news report created by the BBC five days after the attack. This report was chosen as it gives the reader an insight of what the media had to say about the events shortly after they had occurred and more information had been gathered. My analysis will take the following structure; First, I will investigate into the motivation that Said and Cherif Kouachi had to carry out the attack. I will then analyse underlying causes that created the environment necessary for them to become terrorists. Through analysing the motives and underlying causes, the essay will justify that the act is primarily Nationalist Dissident terrorism. It will then look into what the perpetrators achieved through carrying out the attack. I will briefly analyse the appropriateness of the chosen media report, identifying its weaknesses. I will conclude by looking at the response of the nation’s government, from how it reacted on the days of the siege, to how strategies were evolved to prevent future measures.

Charlie Hebdo is a French magazine where journalists “draw, write, interview, ponders and laughs at everything on this earth which is they believe is ridiculous” ( 2016). It is known for its highly controversial views and satire cartoons mocking important political and religious figures, publishing material the test the limits of free speech (Mackay & Horning 2016:1). On 7th January 2015 its offices were attacked Cherif and Said Kouachi who burst into it with Kalashnikov assault rifles, killing 12 people and injuring 11. The attackers demanded specific editors revealed themselves before killing them. After the initial attacks the suspects were able to flee the scene. This caused Paris to be on maximum security and 500 new officers were deployed in the city for 2 days (BBC 2015). Towards the end of the manhunt the police forced the brothers to seek refuge in a print works in Dammartin-en-Goele 22 miles from Paris. The siege ended on 9th January with a blaze of gunfire and smoke as the brothers came out of the building firing at the elite forces. The BBC report predominantly detailed the main shootings and events that occurred during the 2 days. It used emotive language to describe the attack, labelling the event as a ‘massacre’ that brought ‘bloodshed to the capital’ (BBC 2015). The report provided photos, videos and maps of the attacks and where they occurred to give the reader an insight on the events. This specific report was chosen as the BBC is one of the largest news outlets within the UK. It therefore has the power to influence the views of a large proportion of the UK population. This makes it important that we critically of the event and how the BBC have reported it.

The BBC’s report gave brief information on the motive for the attack. It stated that witnesses heard the brothers shouting “God is great” and “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” (BBC 2015). It also provided religious context, reporting that two jihadist flags were found in the back of their getaway car (BBC 2015), this confirmed that the brothers affiliated themselves with Islamic militancy at the time. From this evidence we can deduct that the motivation for the attack was revenge in the name of God. Fredrick Hacker would categorise the Kouachi brothers as ‘crusaders’. This is because their ultimate goals were less understandable to the wider population who are not Muslim. They also did not seek personal gain, instead they believed they were serving a higher cause (Hacker F 1976: 8–9). The brother’s comments show that they believed the cartoons published were blasphemous towards their Prophet Muhammad (Saiya N 2016: 1). As a consequence, they were consumed by a ‘righteous rage’ that drove them to violence (Whittaker J 2012:21). Islamic extremists regard those who defame Islam as enemies of their religion (Saiya N 2014:4); through doing so they dehumanise their targets, removing any sense of ambiguity from their mind (Whittaker D 2012: 19). Charlie Hebdo has a record of Islam-based jokes making it a longstanding enemy to extremists. Muslims had previously attempted to stop the company from doing so, in 2006 Islamic organisations made an attempt to sue the publisher but were unsuccessful (Telegraph 2015). The publisher has also been a victim of violent terrorism; it was firebombed in 2011 a day after it named the prophet Muhammad it’s editor-in-chief (Charlie Hebdo 2016), despite this the company continued as usual. Whittaker would state that the brothers felt they were pushed to a place where violence was ‘the only just and moral thing to do’ (2012: 21). This is because disappointments and frustrations with nonviolent action are frequently used as motivation for terrorism (Crenshaw M 2007:13). Combs would agree with this, adding that some people still believe that it is their right to commit acts of extreme violence if acts of wrong are done to them (2013:35).

Richardson suggests that the desire for revenge reflects the short-term goals of the followers of terrorist movements. There are long-term goals that serve more philosophical and political aspirations (Richardson L 2006: 81). Gus Martin identifies that these long-term goals have more ‘optimal objectives’ moving towards a political change (2016:269). Through analysing the Kouachi brother’s choice of target we begin to unveil a secondary motive aimed at these long-term goals. As with all terrorist attacks, there were direct and indirect targets (Primortaz I 1990: 131). The direct targets were the publishers, and the indirect was the wider population who exercised their freedom of speech. The long-term aims were to change the attitudes of the indirect target on the mocking of Muslim beliefs, and alter the government’s decision making on magazine publishers (Crenshaw 2007:18). It is evident that the Kouachi brothers used rational thinking to select their target and determine when, where and how to attack (Crenshaw 2007:18). They chose these variables to design an attack that communicates a powerful message (Hoffman B 2006:229), this was proven when Cherif called into a French TV network and stated their objectives (Independent 2015). Asal would argue that through choosing to target undefended civilians they communicated a different level of fear (Asal et al. 2009). This is because people feel an attack could ‘occur to anyone, at anytime, anywhere’ (Post J 2007:3). Through analysing these theories, it becomes much clearer that they were motivated by more than personal revenge. They wanted to spread a message aimed at any person that ridicules the Muslim culture. The editors of Charlie Hebdo held symbolic value as they exercised their freedom of speech against Muslims to its peak (Whittaker J 2012:18). The political motive and choice of soft targets means the attack meets the criteria to be labelled terrorism. Green and Shapiro would evaluate this analysis proposing that there are some limitations of rational choice theory. They state that it does not take into account constraints such as cost, time and availability, using the assumption of ceteris paribus conditions (Lindauer L 2012: 7). The theory does use unrealistic conditions, however, in this case it is evident that the brothers used calculated decisions to maximise their impact.

Existing explanations of Islamic terrorism regularly depend on ideological / psychological disposition to explain the reason why people become terrorists. However, this analysis reverberates with the popular western assumption the Muslims ‘simply don’t get western freedoms and lifestyles’ (Githens-Mazer J 2011:1). Reality shows that this is not the case, only a minority turn to the Jihadi path, and those who do justify their attacks on fraudulent teachings. In the case of Charlie Hebdo shooting, Islam never mentions blasphemy, nor does it mandate any punishment for depictions of Muhammad (Saiya N 2016: 2). This proves the presence of underlying causes that drove them to carry out the attack. Newman would agree with this analysis, identifying that ‘certain conditions provide a social environment and widespread grievances that, when combined …. result in the emergence of terrorist organisations and terrorist acts’ (Newman E 2006:750). The first underlying cause is a ‘geostrategic’ one; this term can be used to refer to the existence of international conflicts as a root cause (d’Appollina & Reich 2010:116). After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the brothers became dedicated to their religion, this is described as the “Iraq effect” (Cockburn & Sengupta K 2007). Thousands of Afghan and Iraqi citizens lost their lives due to the war on terror, causing many Muslims to strengthen their faith. However, it also caused many to become vulnerable to Jihadi influence. The Kouachi brothers became victims of the Jihadi teachings of Farid Benyettou. He incentivised the brothers to join the holy war against western society (New York Times 2015). It is because of the 2003 invasion that the brothers were subject to radicalisation by Benyettou (Jackson R 2009:72). Tomas Precht defines radicalisation as the ‘process of adopting an extremist belief system and the willingness to use, support, or facilitate violence and fear, as a method of effecting changes in society’ (2007: 16). The timing of the radicalisation makes it clear that the government action abroad was a ‘root cause’ of their extremist views (Crenshaw M 1995:13). Trotsky would use this analysis to argue that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is as justified as the invasion of Iraq. This is because terrorism, war and revolution are different forms of the same thing (Primortaz I 2004: xiv-xv). To him it is necessary force used to revolt against an oppressive state it is (Trotsky L 1920). However, by adopting Valis’ interpretation of Just War theory, we find the action does not meet ‘Jus ad bellum’ and ‘Jus in Bello’ criteria (Valis A 2000:68). According to this criterion, the act cannot be compared with any justified war (Valis A 2000:68).

Domestic socio-economic factors were also an underling cause of the attack; this term is used to refer to socio-economic inequality and alienation (d’Appollina & Reich 2010:117). Cherif and Said were children of Algerian migrants, when their parents passed away they were put into a home for orphaned and troubled children. Later on in life they lived in a working-class neighbourhood heavily populated by Muslim migrants (NY Times 2015). Many Muslim/Algerians in France feel like they are second-class citizens in society (Mallinder L 2015). The root of this was the ‘war between the races’ where the French colonisation of North Africa created a division between the French and Muslim population (Silverstein P 2009:7). There was the perception that because of their contrasting beliefs the Muslim community were incompatible with French (Christian-secular) modernity (Silverstein P 2008:7). This created a breeding ground for inequality and discrimination against them. France currently adheres to a strict form of secularism, known as laïcité, designed to keep religion out of public life (Economist 2014). This means that Muslims who practice their faith in an ostentatious way are marginalised or punished, cases of this include the harassment of Muslim woman who wear burqas in public (Chrisafis A 2011). French legislation had been created to water down religion, but there is no specific regulation designed to protect religious practices (Alicino F 2015: 55). This allows islamophobia to grow without intervention from authorities, posing a clear problem for already existing cultural tensions. These conditions concreted grievances among the Muslim minority including the Kouachi brothers, making them feel alienated in society. According to Braddock & Horgan, the dissatisfaction of the subgroup is a root cause of terrorism (2012: 102). We can link Braddock & Horgan’s writings to relative deprivation theory. This highlights that the rising expectations of a group who feel they are second class can cause them to resort to political violence (Gurr T 1970: 24). Alienation and horizontal inequalities in French society have a clear link to the act of terrorism through analysing this case (Newman E 2006: 752). Younge would argue that because of this relative deprivation terrorism was justified. He identifies terrorism as tool for the politically powerless to alleviate their grievances (Primortaz 2004: XVI). However, terrorism that intentionally harms soft targets can never truly be justified, even if the ultimate goals are legitimate. ‘There is no merit or exoneration in fighting for the freedom of one population if in doing so you destroy the rights of another population’ (Ganor B 2010:288).

Overall, the report portrays the act as a form of religious terrorism. Rapoport identifies it as the latest wave of terrorism and ‘if it follows the pattern of its predecessors, it still has twenty to twenty-five years to run’ (Rapoport D 2002). It defers from the other forms of terrorism by working towards utopian goals, aiming to radically refashion society into a more God-fearing community (Gunning & Jackson 2011:371). It is clear that the attack on Charlie Hebdo fits this category when examining the motivation to protect the Muslim faith, the mention of the prophet Muhammad solidifies this. However, through analysing underlying causes we find that religion was a secondary factor. Instead, Nationalist dissident terrorism is primary. This is as an act of terrorism ‘committed by non-state movements and groups against governments, ethno-national groups, religious groups, and other perceived enemies’ (Martin G 2006: 153). They champion the interests of groups distinguished by their cultural and religious background (Martin G 2006: 159). The Kouachi brothers were defending the Muslim minority who experienced racism and marginalisation by many Frenchman, which was only exacerbated by the ‘war on terror’ (Silverstein P 2008:3-4). This war heightened levels of discrimination against the minority; this was due to the assumption that Islam promotes the killing of innocent people. The Muslim population are said to be under a triple onslaught of threats ‘from those who conduct the attacks, from citizens who blame them for the attacks and, now, from the government’ (Mallinder L 2015). These social tensions are fundamental to the uprising against the governments as an expression of displeasure of the conditions. The Blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad was a factor, however to brand the act as religious terrorism would ignore the on-going issues within the French society. Identity theory supports this, it states that the interaction between social, cultural and personal identity determine the likelihood of terrorism (Dunkel 2009:545). The extremists felt they were socially identified as an ‘outgroup’ and therefore revolted against society and its values (Dunkel 2009:542).

When we look into the impact of the attack we find that it was able to achieve certain goals. The brothers were able to punish the editors of Charlie Hebdo for their acts accomplishing their ‘Assassin’s Veto’ (Corn-Revere 2016). They were also able to send a message to all those who may try to mimic them. ‘The day after the attack, political cartoonists from around the world flooded the internet with cartoons memorializing and questioning the attacks’ (Horning & Mackey 2016:1). Nationalist dissident terrorists acknowledge that they ‘cannot win their struggle without raising the revolutionary consciousness of the people’ (Martin G 2016:271). The brothers were able to do this to an extent, as they forced Muslims to think of the moralities of ‘aggressive cartooning’ against Islam (Horning & Mackey 2016:1). The audience was polarised, publishers and scholars argued on how religion should be portrayed in the media (Horning & Mackey 2016:1). The Kouachi brothers were able to impose debates to the point that protests erupted in Britain, Turkey, Jordan and the Philippines against drawing of Muhammad in cartoons (Horning & Mackey 2016:1). This proves that the brothers were successful in incentivising Muslims to stand against the mocking of Muslim beliefs. Research shows that they were also able to install fear and sadness into a large majority of citizens after the attacks (Drozda-Senkowska & Pelletier 2016). This fear is effective when coercing the wider population not to commit blasphemy. However, it was not efficient enough to eradicate the use of the cartoons to question Muslim culture. Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon of naked Muslims on its front page despite the attacks (Independent 2016). Signs of solidarity were shown all across France; in Paris the biggest demonstration in recent history took place on Place De La République. Millions of citizens expressed their unity for the victims and their families expressing it through the slogan ‘Jus suis Charlie’ (Drozda-Senkowska & Pelletier 2016). Research also revealed that the events were perceived as a threat to the country’s democratic values and culture of freedom of speech (Drozda-Senkowska & Pelletier 2016). This meant that the attack failed to make the French turn against those who mock the Muslim culture, instead they united together. The use of violence resulted in the opposite of what the brothers aimed to do to government attitudes. Many world leaders came together and condemned the attacks, urging the public to strengthen their beliefs on freedom of speech (Telegraph 2015).

There was a vast amount of media coverage after the event. Media is very important in many aspects; it has the capability to help terrorist achieve their goals through spreading their ‘propaganda by the deed’ (Combs C 2013: 171). It also has the ability to help governments stress the criminality of the act making the perpetrator the enemy, incentivising cooperation and unity from civilians (Combs C 2013:169). Wilkinson identifies this on-going struggle as the ‘propaganda war’ (1997:51). It is because of the propaganda war that the media frequently gives bias reports of terrorism attacks, only detailing information that benefits the agenda of the government. The BBC report provided superficial information on the brothers history, only identifying that Cherif ‘was a convicted Islamist who was jailed in 2008 and had long been known to police for militant activities’ (BBC 2015). This immediately gives the indication that the attack was motivated by Islamic extremist beliefs. However, as shown by the previous analysis this is an overly simplistic explanation of the attack. The BBC framed the event to give the audience a clear enemy, portraying it in ‘Manichean terms – dark versus light; good versus evil’ (Younge G 2015). The French government was framed as the perfect example of western freedom that is a victim of evil Islamic extremism. Yet, as previously discussed the attack was caused by much more than Islamic extremism. Ryan and Switzer conclude that journalists can never be neutral when reporting their stories, this is because there is no fixed meaning in the world they’re about to represent. There may be external factors including their religion, race and aspirations that can taint their writings (2009: 47). The journalists who wrote the BBC report showed bias by not exploring the link between cultural tensions and the attack. Instead it gave a westernised view and branded the attackers as Islamic extremists, giving an inadequate explanation for the attacks. As a result of this analysis it becomes clear that report was constructed to demonise the attackers and satisfy the audience’s desire for dramatic stories (Wilkinson P 1997:53). It detailed the main events of the attack, giving the timings of each shooting with maps and photos of where the violence occurred. Rather than being informative, it was designed to make the reader feel that they were a part of the chase against evil.

Previous to the attacks there were some preventative measures against the risk of attacks. However, there had been no attempt to prevent individuals from becoming radicalised or reintegrate those who had already been until 2014 (Hellmuth D 2015:979). The response from the authorities during the attacks was swift. After the attacks there was a substantial increase in investment into counterterrorist measures, funds were boosted by 246 million Euros and 2,680 new jobs were created (Hellmuth D 2015:988). The French response was a reform in three main areas to prevent and detect radicalisation at its early stages (CEPS 2015:3); firstly, the level of surveillance and intelligence gathering increased. A new database for convicted terrorists was created, and legislation on technology including wire taps, internet and phone data was reformed allowing authorities to monitor suspects with ease. Secondly, there were reforms in the prison system to better control the spread of radical ideas. Prisoners who are deemed radical are now isolated limit their interactions with other inmates. More professionally trained Imams were employed by the prisons who could engage in debates with other Muslims (Hellmuth D 2015:989). This is significant as 50% of French prisoners are Muslim, the lack of chaplains created a vacuum for self-proclaimed imams and their radical ideas to fill (Hellmuth D 2015:990). Lastly, there were local initiatives created and a phone hotline was promoted in order to help those contemplating joining the Jihadi war. This was more of a community approach to counterterrorism and has been deemed instrumental to preventing multiple citizens from leaving for Syria in February 2015. Gus Martin would categorise these methods as repressive forms of counterterrorism as they aim to disrupt and deter terrorist behaviour (Martin G 2016: 376). The effectiveness of the response is questionable; statistics show that most that entered prison on terrorist charges were first offenders. There have been cases of large scale terrorism in France since this response, including the Bataclan attack in November 2015. This proves repression is not enough to prevent an attack. The French government’s move towards soft prevention will help to address some of the root causes, however conciliatory options need to be explored if there is going to be drastic change (Martin G 2016:377). Addressing grievances that the Muslim population have will effectively prevent the environment the cause’s terrorism to develop. This is because extremist perspectives primarily win sympathy and recruits by offering narratives that identify deep injustices and enemies (Storer J 2012).

To conclude, the evidence has shown that the Charlie Hebdo attack was a much more complicated than a product of Islamic extremism. The Kouachi brothers had been significantly affected by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the social tensions in France, these made them vulnerable to external influence. They were motivated to take revenge for the blasphemy carried out by the editors and to spread a message to the wider population. They achieved their goal of revenge and were able send a message to others. However, they failed to deter the majority from sticking by Charlie Hebdo and what it stands for. The BBC article chosen failed to look into geostrategic or domestic socio-economic root causes of the attack. It therefore does not appropriately inform the reader of the real causes of the attack. Despite the implications given by the report, the act is primarily an example of Nationalist dissident terrorism. This is because they sought to further the interests of their cultural minority. The French government responded to the attacks by investing millions into antiterrorism divisions and developing soft prevention methods. It was not able to prevent future attack from occurring in France, but it is a step in the right direction to prevent individuals from being radicalised.


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One thought on “France – ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror’ (BBC, 2015)

  1. This is an excellent essay which demonstrates very good understanding of the case study and insightful critical thinking. It builds on an extensive range of relevant sources which it deploys very well, especially in applying scholarly literature to the case study. It is very well structured, very well written, and very well referenced.

    At the same time, sometimes the essay wants to pack in so much that the argument loses full rigour and clarity – and sometimes a single paragraph rushes through several points quickly when they could perhaps be more clearly differentiated and better paragraphed. Some of the essay’s many comments could have been omitted so as to leave a little more space for fuller elaboration of the most critical ones. Relative deprivation theory, for instance, does not seem fully relevant here. The comment on rational choice theory is unclear and does not appear critical either. Elsewhere, some comments could be developed with a little more nuance and rigour – for instance the comment on colonisation seems rushed, as does the passing mention of just war theory. The comment on French unity could be reflected upon somewhat given some of the controversies which did follow the attack. And perhaps the socio-economic dimension could have been treated in a little more depth. The essay does manage to pack in many relevant arguments, but sometimes more sharply and rigorously than others – a more homogenous pace and tone might have allowed the essay to make all its points but with more systematically consistent rigour and nuance.

    Apart from that, there are a few very minor infelicities in the bibliography, a few spelling mistakes, and rather frequent misuse of punctuation.

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


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