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Did the massacre at Charlie Hebdo succeed, in terms of furthering the interests of extreme jihadi al-Qaeda-type Islamic movements? The incident itself is over with the deaths of the murderers, but the degree of their success will only become clear when we see how far French political leaders are lured into an over-reaction.
It was worrying to see Le Monde’s banner headline: “Le 11 Septembre Français.” First, it simply is not true: there were 2,977 victims of the 9/11 attacks and 17 victims in last week’s shootings in Paris. The shock was far greater in the United States than in France because of the visual impact of aircraft crashing into the twin towers, and their spectacular collapse. It is important to keep a sense of proportion about such atrocities, because the perpetrators, whether linked to Islamic State (Isis), al-Qaeda or freelance jihadis, select targets that will guarantee maximum publicity. “The media is half jihad” is a slogan sometime seen on jihadi websites.
Misleading analogies between 7/1 in France and 9/11 in the US should create a sense of foreboding. The most important victory of Osama bin Laden did not come on the day the 19 mainly Saudi hijackers took command of the planes, but in the months and years which followed as President Bush led the US into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which American troops fought Muslims. As the US resorted to rendition, the mistreatment and torture of prisoners, expanded security agencies and limited civil rights for its own people it delegitimised itself and acted as recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda and its clones. If bin Laden had been hiding in the attic of the White House giving instructions to those in the rest of the building he could not have devised a cocktail of measures more likely to aid his cause.
Somehow the degree of failure of the “war on terror” launched by Bush and supported by Britain has never led to those who launched it being held culpable. Fail it demonstrably did, since in 2001 al-Qaeda had a few hundred activists confined to a few camps and towns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fourteen years later, after vast expenditure on anti-terrorism by the US and its allies, al-Qaeda-type movements control large areas of Iraq and Syria and dominate the Sunni Arab armed opposition in both countries. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, is a growing power as the shock troops of the Sunni community. On the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, some 36 police cadets were killed in the Yemeni capital Sanaa by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber.
Will France make the same mistake the US did, when the Bush administration, the neo-conservatives and state security agencies exploited 9/11 to increase their power and implement their agendas? It could easily happen. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has already spoken twice about the “war of civilisations” that sounds suspiciously like a French version of Bush’s “war on terror”, which in present circumstances is the sort of demagoguery that will be music to the ears of jihadis. There is already a potential constituency for jihadism among France’s 6 million Muslims, who have been pushed to the margins and see themselves as the victims of old-fashioned racism disguised as a confrontation between progressive secularism and medieval Islamic practices.
War exposes and exacerbates such divisions in any country but France is especially vulnerable, because of the legacy of hatred stemming from the Algerian war of independence. Some of the rhetoric immediately after the Paris massacre included melodramatic slogans such as “France is at war”. Again this echoes President Bush over a decade ago. And, of course, France is not at war, but, while the slogan is untrue as it stands, it does lead the way to an important but little appreciated truth about French security that applies equally to the rest of Europe.
France may not be at war but it is suffering from the effects at a distance of the four wars now raging in the wider Middle East. Three of these – Syria, Libya and Yemen – have started since 2011, and a fourth in Iraq has massively escalated since that time. In addition, there are continuing wars in Afghanistan and Somalia, which means that there six major conflicts in Muslim countries between India and the Tunisian border that provide fertile ground for fanatical Sunni al-Qaeda type groups to take root and flourish.
In the wake of the Paris killings there is much speculation about what links there may have been with foreign jihadis in the shape of Isis or al-Qaeda in Yemen. But this rather misses the point. Attacks on civilians require weapons, ammunition and the ability to use them, but no great level of combat training. What is really driving these attacks in Europe, and will go on doing so, is the collapse of so many Muslim states into violence and anarchy providing an ideal environment for Sunni jihadism to grow. Unsurprisingly, extreme fanatical Sunni jihadis, whom sympathisers might see as “holy warriors” and one Afghan journalist described as “holy fascists”, do well in wartime conditions. The Isis, in particular, relates to the world around it almost solely through acts of violence.
What would be surprising is if this violence from these six wars did not at some point find an echo among Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere. Given that there are 1.6 billion Muslims, the great majority Sunni, it is surely inevitable that this will happen. It is the strength of this overall motivation that makes further incidents like Charlie Hebdo so difficult to detect and to stop in France, Britain and elsewhere. Plots and conspiracies, orchestrated from abroad or home grown, conducted by well-trained jihadis or by angry young men with kitchen knives, pose threats too numerous and diverse for them all to be prevented.
French intelligence services are now facing criticism for failing to see the threat posed by Chérif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, but this is a little unfair. Intelligence services have vast masses of information about people who might be dangerous because of their ethnic origins, religious beliefs, suspected views or past actions but other than locking them all up – as happened to many in Britain in during the Second World War – identifying those who pose a real danger is extremely difficult. It is only after they have murdered somebody that their potential as a threat looks so obvious.
The failure that has put all the world in danger is at the level of politics rather than security. It was political leaders who got rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and have tried to displace Bashar al-Assad in Syria without thinking through the consequences. One can argue about whether or not this was a good thing to do, but the result of these actions has been to open the gates to al-Qaeda, Isis and their clones. From these savage conflicts sparks are bound to fly and start fires in Europe.