France – ‘Manhunt for Charlie Hebdo suspects enters third day’ (France 24, 2015)

By Natali Dimitrova (2016-17)

Analysis of ‘Manhunt for Charlie Hebdo suspects enters third day’ (France 24, 9th January 2015)

On 7 January 2015, at around 11:30 local time, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi made their way into the office of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper in Paris, by coercing cartoonist Corinna “Coco” Ray to let them in, using her key card (Elgot, 2017). Heavily armed, the two brothers murdered 12 people and injured another 11. Witness reports claim that the pair announced their affiliation to the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen before conducting the attack and instructed bystanders to relay that information to the media (Watt, 2015). A week later, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video and publicly accepted responsibility for the attack (Shoichet and Levs, 2015). The incident occurred following the publication of a satirical cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, considered offensive by some Muslims (Guimelli, Lo Monaco and Deschamps, 2010; Kamiejski, De Oliveira and Guimond, 2012), as visual representations of the Prophet are a highly contentious issue in Islam (Müller and Özcan, 2007). They took off in a getaway car, killing one policeman at close range and shooting at others, before abandoning the vehicle and taking possession of another (BBC News, 2015). The French authorities raised their Vigipirate alert to its highest level and conducted a manhunt which lead to the discovery of the suspects, two days later. The pair had taken a hostage in the Dammartin-en-Goële commune, some 35 kilometers away from the capital, but later released him unharmed (BBC News, 2015). Saïd and Chérif Kouachi were eventually killed after emerging from the building, firing at police.

This essay contends that the attack can legitimately be considered a ‘terrorist act’ as it meets several key criteria. Firstly, the primary aim is political/religious, rather than criminal (Badey 1998, p.95). Upon leaving the scene of the crime, one of the Kouachi brothers was heard yelling: “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad… We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” (Vale, 2015). Furthermore, the brothers reportedly spared the lives several female employees present at the time, claiming they do not kill women and instructing them to read the Quran[1] (Fredericks, 2015). Another condition satisfied by the attack that fits the label is the resort to violence (Garrison, 2004, p.259; Prabha 2008, p. 133). What is more, the violence is carried out against civilians rather than military personnel (Ganor, 2002; Wilkinson, 1994) and, as such, violates the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Finally, the brothers themselves declare association with AQAP – an internationally recognised terrorist organisation (Watt, 2015). This paper argues that the combination of these factors is sufficient to classify the Charlie Hebdo attack as a ‘terrorist’ act. This essay will now critically analyse the incident and discuss the plausible motives and underlying causes that likely facilitated the tragedy. The appropriateness of media reports covering the incident will then be scrutinised, with particular attention being paid to the online report by France 24 (2015) titled “Manhunt after deadly Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack,” published a day after the original attack. It will then examine the official response and counter-terrorist measures taken, as they pertain to the event and its immediate aftermath.  Finally, this essay will consider whether the aims of the perpetrators were realised.

Motives and underlying causes

According to Yaghi (2015, p.1), the attack by the Kouachi brothers was intended as a ‘performance of terror,’ a message to France and the rest of the Judeo-Christian world: “Convinced that they… are ordained by God to rid the world of the blasphemous West, the attackers understood their own struggle in global and religious terms, a clash of civilizations and a war between good and evil”. Although it is difficult to deny that religion was an important motive, evidenced by the brothers’ eagerness to profess their affiliation to AQAP (Shoichet and Levs, 2015) and their parting words about avenging the Prophet Muhammad (Vale, 2015), this paper argues that there were deeper underlying causes at play that demand attention. France today is populated by over 6 million Muslims, more than any other country inside the European Union (PEW, 2011, p.133). Even so, research shows that this group continues to be highly marginalised and worse off in socioeconomic terms, compared to the rest of the nation (Camillieri, 2013). Unemployment rates amongst people of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian descent, for example, are disproportionately higher compared to those in other immigrant communities. Muslims also report higher instances of discrimination in France. Pent up frustrations regarding low job prospects and police harassment towards Muslim communities gave expression to a chain of riots across suburbs of Paris and other French cities in 2005, which resulted in three deaths and thousands of arrests (Canet et al., 2008). Connected to this, Naravene (2015) observes that in French suburbs:

“[y]outh unemployment is over 40 percent, four times the national average; the school dropout rate as high as 36 percent. A majority of France’s six million Muslims live in the suburbs… jammed together, isolated and cut off from the rest of the country… the rich, inner-city neighborhoods of large towns being beyond their reach” (Navarene, 2015).

In light of this, he posits, it is not unlikely for such adverse circumstances to give youngsters an easy push towards terrorist activity which “appears to give them a purpose in life” (Navarene, 2015). Marret (2010, p.198) similarly argues that ‘jihadists’ in France are likely to have low education levels and to have experienced lengthy intervals of unemployment. Additionally, majority of these individuals are associated with acts of delinquency and tend to become radicalised in prison (Marret, 2010, p.199). These are important structural and socioeconomic factors that facilitate the path towards extremism and violence. In the case of the Kouachi brothers, the men were French citizens born to Algerian immigrants who were placed in foster care from a young age, after their mother committed suicide. The pair are also described as having “a history of dead-end jobs” and “petty crime” (Blair, 2015). Furthermore, Chérif Kouachi’s Jihadi convictions were, indeed, reportedly hardened behind bars, with Djamel Beghal being a key figure in his further radicalisation (Hellmuth, 2015, p.990).

Another underlying cause that indirectly facilitated the Charlie Hebdo attack (and others like is) is rooted in the cherished national principle of laïcité. As blasphemy laws ceased to exist in France at the start of the 19th century, they were replaced by the separation of Church and State[2] which became enshrined into the nation’s constitution (Baubérot, 2012). However, significant changes have taken place in France over the past decade which have contributed to the evolution of what Baubérot (2012) refers to as ‘new laïcité.’ While the former concerns itself with freedom of consciousness and is fundamentally based on the principle of equality, the latter is paramountly characterised by the notion that religion should be a wholly private issue (Nugier et al., 2016, p.79). The steady rise of Le Pen’s far-right Front National and its anti-immigration, anti-Muslim rhetoric has been influential in steering the national debate and advancing the ‘new laïcité.’ This resulted in the passing of a 2004 law that banned pupils in public school from wearing any visible religious signs. The move has been justified as an attempt to combat Islamic fundamentalism (see Idriss, 2005; see also Milot, 2013) and was followed by the passing of a subsequent law in 2010, which banned veils in public places (Allen, 2010). Significantly, research suggests that ‘new laïcité’ is associated with the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments (see Kamiejski et al. 2012; Nugier et al. 2016a; Roebroeck and Guimond, 2015). ‘New laïcité’ has become increasingly prominent in French society since 2010 (Roebroeck, 2015 as cited in Nugier et al., 2016), contributing to the further marginalisation and alienation of an already victimised Muslim minority. In this way, Charlie Hebdo may be perceived as an embodiment of this ‘new laïcité’, for some, therefore constitute a target. In fact, 2015 is not the first time the satirical magazine has published depictions of the Prophet. The magazine reproduced such images in 2006, 2011 and 2012, with some of the latter ones portraying the religious figure nude (The Telegraph, 2015). This lead to an unsuccessful lawsuit under the french hate speech laws on behalf of Muslim communities (Reuters, 2007), firebombing of the publication’s offices (Duggan, 2015) and the hacking of their website (Bacchi, 2012).

How the attack was reported

This essay will argue that the discursive construction of ‘terrorism’ by France 24 (as well as the majority of mainstream media) in its report of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 is highly problematic as it offers a rather scant definition of the term, explicitly connecting it to Islam and Muslims. The account provided by the French broadcaster depicts the incident as fundamentally caused by outside forces, absolving France of any responsibility and denying explanatory potential of any internal factors to the facilitation of the attack. Instead, accountability is mainly projected onto foreign extremist organisations. For example, the article chosen for analysis here has the following title: “Manhunt after deadly Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack” (France 24, 2015b). The ‘terrorist’ label is freely granted in the immediate aftermath of the attack, prior to the incident having been established as one by any official sources (Połońska-Kimunguyi and Gillespie, 2016, p.573). Chérif Kouachi is then described as “a known jihadist” who was familiar to the French intelligence agencies for “funnelling jihadi fighters to Iraq” (France 24, 2015b). Little is said of the other perpetrator, aside from the fact that he was Chérif’s “34-year-old brother Saïd” (France 24, 2015b). The attention of the reader is therefore immediately drawn upon the “known jihadist” (France 24, 2015b). The report later notes that “fears had been running high in Europe that jihadis trained in warfare abroad would stage attacks at home” (France 24, 2015) making the association between terrorism and Islam more salient and prominent in the audience’s mind. The semantic jump from ‘Muslim’/‘Islam’ to ‘terrorism’ is therefore subconsciously encouraged. This trend is not unique to the particular report analysed in this paper but a wider failing of the way mainstream media has reported on the event. Nevalsky (2015, p.466), for example, analysed the news coverage of the January terrorist attacks in Paris, France as well as the ones in Borno, Nigeria and discovered “significant variances in the overall coverage, headline style and discourse usage based on the event.” He found that the American news coverage positively framed France through detailed, sympathetic coverage and negatively framed Nigeria by overgeneralising and placing blame (Nevalsky, 2015, p.466). Almost across the board, France is therefore absolved of guilt or agency. Simultaneously, domestic factors such as discrimination, youth marginalisation, poor education and job prospects, as well as the turbulent relationship between French law enforcement and the Muslim community, are not addressed (see Połońska-Kimunguyi and Gillespie, 2016).

Even though the incident took place on French soil by French citizens against other French citizens, there has been a sustained attempt to internationalise the event and frame it in the context of the global war on terror. The gathering of heads of states on January 11th 2015 further severed to remove the incident from the scale of the domestic and transfer it onto the scale of the international. As observed by Yaghi (2015, p.6): “Their presence internationalized a homemade French problem. Therefore, it absolved the French political establishment of any responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo tragic event, aided in its effort to silence French Muslims, and created the illusion of a clash of civilizations.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, himself, declared that France was “at war against terrorism and radical Islam” (Roth, 2015, p.1). Interpreting the attack through the lens of ‘global terror’ relieves the state from responsibility and glosses over its perpetual failure to integrate French Muslims. Yaghi (2015, p.5) highlights the horrors of French colonial past that is swept under the rug and warns that its is not simply a historical heritage as recent military interventions in the Middle East may serve as a context against which young French Muslims develop their identities. Using similar argumentation, Tariq Ali (2015) concludes that the radicalisation of the two brothers was “a pure product of French society. Unemployed, long-haired, into drugs, alienated till they saw footage of US torture and killings in Iraq.” The fact that the Kouachi brothers were French citizens was severely underplayed by the media. For example, the coverage by France 24 merely reference that the two were born in Paris but moves on, in a discursive act of de-identification,  to instil surprise in the reader at the fact that the brothers somehow “used fluent, unaccented French” (France 24 2015b).

In his work Covering Islam, Edward Said (1981, p.169) argues that the way Western media represents and interprets the Islamic faith is immensely influential and that the success “of this coverage can be attributed to the political influence of those people and institutions producing it rather than necessarily to truth or accuracy”. This tendency is therefore not only inappropriate but also dangerous. It inspires us to view “fundamentalism,” especially Islamic Fundamentalism as “everything we must now fight against, as we did with communism during the Cold War” (Said, 1981, p.xix). An ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary is constructed, encouraging the reader to view the world through a Huntingtonian lens that sees “culture” as “the dominating source of conflict” (Huntington, 1993, p.22). The civilised, peaceful Judeo-Christian is therefore pitted against the uncivilised, fundamentalist Muslim ‘other’ (Nurullah, 2010, p.1020). Placing responsibility solely on Islamic indoctrination and foreign training facilities could potentially further estrange Muslim communities in France, worsening already turbulent relations (Połońska-Kimunguyi and Gillespie, 2016, p.568). This can be evidenced by some of the counter-terror measures adopted after the Charlie Hebdo attack, which have overwhelmingly been focused on stricter surveillance measures on minorities and the restriction of combat and overseas travel. As aptly observed by Połońska-Kimunguyi and Gillespie (2016, p.568): “This type of discourse excludes long-term policy solutions that address broader socio-politico-economic conditions in which ‘terrorism’ might flourish”.

Counter-Terrorism and official response.

The Kouachi brothers were not unknown to the authorities, who were aware of their interactions with radical imams, as well as their visits to terrorist training facilities abroad. French intelligence services had, at one point, even tapped the phones of the pair (Hellmuth, 2015, p.986). Saïd and Chérif Kouachi had belonged to the so called “Nineteenth-district network” that was active in supplying recruits for the jihad in Iraq against the US between 2003 and 2007. A key figure to their indoctrination into extremism was Boubaker al-Hakim who grew up in the nineteenth district of Paris where he met the brothers. He originally travelled to Syria in 2002 as a student to study Arabic but joined the “Arab legion,” formed by the Saddam regime, which was preparing to stand against the imminent US invasion, during the following year. In an interview with French media, al-Hakim sent an open invitations to his “buddies from the Nineteenth district” (Paris Match, 2015) to take part in the resistance against the Americans. After the fall of the regime, al-Hakim went underground but was caught by the French authorities, alongside  Chérif Kouachi. The latter was sentenced to 3 years incarceration for attempting to travel to a terrorist camp in Iraq  (Hellmuth, 2015, p.989-990). While in prison, Cherif Kouachi met Amedy Coulibaly who later killed a policewoman and four others in a Jewish kosher grocery store between 7th and 9th January 2015. In a video released after his death, Coulibaly revealed that he coordinated attacks with the Kouachi brothers, noting that they “did some things together, some things separate” and agreed “to synchronise [their movements]” (Borgen, 2015). A month following the Charlie Hebdo attack, in its English publication Dabiq, AQAP praises the attack carried out by Coulibaly and that he provided “the two mujāhid” Kouachi brothers with funds and weapons “so as to call to jihād under the banner of the Khilāfah” (Dabiq, 2015).

The aftermath of the attack saw a series of security-oriented measures implemented, consistent with France’s tradition of ‘tough’ measures and policies to tackle Jihadi terrorism – counterterrorism spending was increased by an additional 246 million euro in 2015 and is expected to rise to 736 million euro by the end of 2017; intelligence capabilities have also been boosted with the creation of over 2,600 new jobs in surveillance (Hellmuth, 2015, p.992). One new ‘soft’ measure that is pledged, however, is heightening the number of prison imams and enhancing their training, as an attempt to limit Jihadi radicalisation in French prisons (Hellmuth, 2015, p.992). More intelligence officers will also be deployed inside prisons in an effort to facilitate early detection of radicalisation, as both Kouachi and Coulibaly managed to avoid detection and suspicion.  The government also revealed a new online ‘Stop-jihadism’ platform, intended to help the families of individuals in danger of becoming radicalised by providing them with various tools and counter-narratives to challenge extremist ideology (, 2017). The initiative represents an attempt to limit the recruitment of fighters through the web. These are encouraging developments, as France has historically failed to implement ‘soft’ counter-radicalisation measures. For example, after the 2004 Madrid and Van Gogh attacks and the 2005 London bombings, it was the only EU country not to do so (Hellmuth, 2015, p.979).

Did the perpetrators succeed in their aim?

Le Sage (2007) contends that terrorism is distinguishable from other types of political violence as it holds as a paramount goal the intention of creating an atmosphere of extreme fear. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack, this aim is facilitated by media coverage such as the article published by France 24 (2015a) on the third day of the manhunt, which chooses to feature the following quote from a local resident: “I live near the woods… I’m afraid. Night is falling and they could be hiding nearby.” Indeed, Nugier and colleagues  (2016), confirm that people felt more threatened and expressed more hostility towards Muslims following the Charlie Hebdo attack. They note, however, that these psychological effects were lessened and reversed by focusing on colour-bling equality – an underpinning of the original principle of laïcité which serves as a defense mechanism against the fear and mistrust created after a terrorist attack. The authors note that this mechanism is exemplified by:

…[T]he collective movement that occurred on January 11 2015 across all major cities in France During this march, people displayed signs of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and “not afraid”… People who used the French equalitarian cultural worldview were apparently able to resist against the trap of terrorism (Nugier, 2015, p.80-82).

In this sense, the objective of the terrorists was not wholly achieved. The world refused to be afraid.

This paper has critically analysed the attack on the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris on the 7th January 2015 and has concluded that it meets the criteria of a ‘terrorist’ act. Although this paper accepts that religion was the obvious motive that inspired the Kouachi brothers, it contends that deeper structural and socioeconomic factors held relevance, such as the continued marginalisation of Muslim communities in France. It has been established that reports of the incident served to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Muslims and overwhelmingly failed to engage with the underlying factors behind the attack. The response of the State and the various counter-terrorist measures that were subsequently implemented have also been discussed. Although the majority of policy and strategy stood in line with the French tradition of ‘hard’ measures, there are notable exceptions. ‘Soft’ counter-radicalisation initiatives are, however, limited and the French state still struggles to address the underlying causes of jihadi terrorism on a larger scale.


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[1] It should be noted that columnist Elsa Cayat was amongst the victims of the attack although, notably, she was the only female killed.

[2] Rough translation of laïcité, although no exact English definition of the term exists.

One thought on “France – ‘Manhunt for Charlie Hebdo suspects enters third day’ (France 24, 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 (except for some very minor formatting inconsistencies).

    At the same time, some angles of analysis could have perhaps been explored in a little more critical depth. In particular, more critical discussion and reflection (and less description) of counter-terrorism would have been interesting, especially in light of the attacks in Paris, Nice and others which followed. There could have also been a bit more discussion of ‘achievements’, especially for instance considering the controversies around “je ne suis pas Charlie” and those around the refusals by some pupils to respect the national minute of silence. Besides, one could argue the essay slightly overplays the semantic conflation of ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ and the ignoring of domestic factors – these were not quite so universal in the media, though yes, arguably quite dominant in many mainstream media.

    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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