The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris which took place in January of 2015 placed France under siege for three days. The attacks were carried out by the Islamic fundamentalist group branding themselves as the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was regarded as the vilest paroxysm of terrorism on French soil since the Algerian War and was promptly labelled as France’s 9/11. AQAP’s magazine ‘Inspire’ had explicitly listed Charlie Hebdo and its editor in chief as targets. There were documented reports on the brothers who had visited Yemen, a breeding ground for terrorists highlighted by National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The inaction of relevant agencies to monitor and detain them had led to the siege.
In November that same year, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris, where suicide bombers and gunmen killed and seriously injured in excess of 500 people eclipsing the brutalities of Charlie Hebdo.
Following the aftermath of these attacks, intensified worries about the failure of French security and intelligence agencies surfaced when reports surfaced indicating that the French and US intelligence services had these terrorists on their radar but hadn’t acted to intercept their planning. The attackers knew each other, were highly coordinated, were able to acquire weapons and carry out training. They were also known to each other as was made evident following the group’s declaration in the aftermath.
President Francois Hollande had reiterated the country’s motto following the attacks, Liberté, égalité, fraternité (‘liberty, equality, fraternity’). While those terrorists, for the most part, appeared French, their backgrounds and motivations were not. These ‘locals’ from the fringe corners of French society had in fact been radicalised. This clearly exposed their disconnect from Western values. The core values espoused by France as a nation had been rejected.
Samuel Huntington’s highly controversial 1993 essay ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’ considers how Arab and Islamic cultures are incompatible with Western liberal ideals, such as pluralism, individualism and democracy. He expressed that the most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating civilizations from one another. An incendiary conjecture but it would be remiss not to consider that correlation in France as the continued risk of alienated youth being susceptible to radicalisation makes it vulnerable to future attacks.
Mitigation, however, does not rest on assigning fault based on a community’s religion or belief system, more so in a civilised society. While granting these marginalised groups an abode which upholds the very best ideals of Western culture, the French government’s responsibility to its nation in ensuring the values of these newcomers mesh with theirs may have fallen short of its necessary diligence. How were these individuals off the intelligence services radar of France and the United States?
France, compared to its European community has objectively been more aggressive in its surveillance of Islamists. It has shown a willingness to seize her own citizens’ passports to prevent them from departing to Syria and Iraq as a countermeasure in tackling jihadist movements. That notwithstanding, there has been an escalation in the number of jihadists who travelled to Syria and Iraq exposing the number of potential sympathisers making tracking them an even more uphill task including categorising their threat levels based on information at hand. The resources available do not always allow every suspect to be monitored. This unfortunate gap is only realised after the fact and was the reason why the Kouachi brothers were tagged as less threatening to national security.
These gaps were also seen when American born cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki who headed the external operations and recruitment of European terrorists for AQAP had financed and trained Said Kouachi during his trip to Yemen in 2011. The French-born Kouachi brothers were also already on US no-fly lists. This should have caused apprehension from the security and intelligence agencies in France and the US. The role Djamel Beghal, an established recruiter for Al-Qaeda in Europe played in the radicalisation and subsequent mentoring of the Charlie Hebdo attackers from time spent together in prison in 2005 was similarly not prioritised by the intelligence community.
The list of local born and bred terrorists, known to authorities, is extensive but is by no means unique to France. In 2017 alone, the UK saw terrorists target Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Finsbury Park, and Parson’s Green. Europol confirmed that most of the attackers in 2017 were home-grown and radicalised without joining ISIS abroad. These terrorists, bred from sleeper cells, coupled with the failures in detection all compound the challenges in curbing terrorism.
For commentators like British journalist Robert Fisk, the argument that sectarian war in the Middle East and the extremist Sunni groups funded by Saudi Arabia, serves as a compelling rationale for the unprecedented rise in global Islamic fundamentalism. It was due to the power vacuum created after the toppling of Saddam Hussein by the West which precipitated the rise of ISIS in Syria, leveraging on Sunni anger against the Shiites leading to a caliphate being declared. This predicament was successfully leveraged by ISIS and its various splinters, hate preachers and sympathisers to engage the global multitude of disenfranchised and marginalised individuals, with social media only accelerating the process.
But leaders such as Donald Trump have only aided in keeping the vicious cycle of ‘Us vs. Them’ perpetuating. His declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has done nothing to quell the raging discontent felt by many and has certainly fuelled fundamental emotions. His sustained discriminatory narrative, from travel restrictions to Muslim countries to his overt support of right-wing factions, factions which enabled his election success in the first place, makes him a potent source of inspiration for another wave of terrorists –the right-wing kind.
These fascists have long practiced racism, xenophobia and outright brutality in Europe. In recent times they have been preying on many faultless refugees and immigrants fleeing war-torn areas. The New York Times recently published that in the US, ‘ The number of hate groups rose for the fourth year in a row in 2018, pushed to a record high by a toxic combination of political polarization, anti-immigrant sentiment, and technologies that help spread propaganda online…’. The number of hate groups is estimated to be over a thousand and correlates with an increase in hate crimes.
Is a rise in right-wing violence linked to rhetoric caused by their leader too farfetched? It certainly does not appear so.
A revived display of right-wing terrorism was seen executed on a level of wickedness previously unimaginable, in Christchurch, New Zealand only a few weeks ago. The attacker, a white male in his 20’s Brenton Tarrant, developed his objectives and gathered his arsenal undetected. In part of this his manifesto, he praised Mr. Trump as a ‘symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose’. He also expressed his motives, a seeming mockery of Samuel Huntington’s deeper understanding, of polarising the people in the United States and eventually a fracturing of the US along cultural and racial lines. As much as intelligence agencies have been struggling to keep tabs on every terrorist, the root cause in every instance of terrorist attacks stems from hate. Leaders in a civilised democratic world must understand this.
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, amid a clear failure of their intelligence agencies, stood out as a beacon of how important the right ‘top-down’ narrative is. In a time of absolute confusion and chaos following the attacks, she united a nation. Although these are still early days, any knee jerk retaliation from minority groups was averted by the inclusive manner in which she and her administration dealt with the situation. She made people feel safe and protected while condemning the acts in no uncertain terms.
The role played by leaders is paramount in subduing the rise of all forms of terrorism. When such atrocities are carried out and innocent lives perish, there is no ‘Us vs. Them’. There are no far-right extremists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists or Salafi-Jihadists. The acts carried out by them are all acts of terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not reliant on religion, race or political ideologies and has been misused by motivated groups to attain an objective.
The narrative by leaders must first be made clear. In a multi-racial/religious society, the fault lines between the various groups must never be leveraged by self-serving politicians. If allowed to fester, it only sows seeds of suspicion among people and lays fertile ground for radical manipulators. An understanding of the most vulnerable groups targeted by terror groups or radical teachers must be made a priority. The role of educators, employers and parents could not be more critical at this juncture in time. Repeatedly, the ease and success of social media being used as a tool for recruiting and radicalising vulnerable groups has been witnessed. The government of any countries should make a real effort to counter these messages with a new and loud centric narrative by utilising the modes of media under its control.
With these efforts sitting on a foundation of effective legislation, sane leadership, effective monitoring, and cooperation with various intelligence and security agencies worldwide, countries like South Africa may succeed in curbing the rising wave of terrorism.
Paneir Selvam Rengasamy, is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Crime and Criminology at HELP University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where he teaches a variety of programmes at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Gerald Pillai is the founder and Managing Consultant of Vestra Solutions, a corporate risk consultancy based out of Kuala Lumpur.