Paris Attack in Context

Briefing Note

Paris Attack in Context

07 Jan 2015

Following a horrific assault by jihadi gunmen on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, this briefing note examines the wider Salafi-jihadi ideological current.

Distressing reports continue to emerge of the attack on the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that has left at least 12 dead. French police have said that the attackers stormed the offices during the magazine's weekly editorial meeting, shouting "we have avenged the Prophet". It follows from a history of violence against Charlie Hebdo by radical Islamist groups. In 2011, the offices were burnt down in an attack following the renaming an issue of the magazine to "Charia Hebdo", with the Prophet Mohammed listed as "honorary editor".

As yet, we do not know the identity of the attackers - there are reports that they claimed to represent al-Qaeda - but we do know that they drew inspiration from a global Salafi-jihadi movement, and their attack certainly did not occur in a vacuum. For the past few weeks, France has been on high alert after calls from ISIS in October to conduct attacks on French citizens. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo have all the hallmarks of a pre-meditated and thought-through assault, but they come amidst a trend of attacks in France from 'self-starters', who are inspired by ISIS ideology rather than having direct ties to the group. This phenomenon can also be found in the recent attacks in Australia and Canada. In their most recent issue of Dabiq, ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine, the group declared that fighters may "join the mujahidin... not by taking part in a journey to the lands of the caliphate... but by striking the kuffar (infidel) where it would hurt them the most".

In the past month we have seen a flurry of lone attacks in France.

In an October issue of Dabiq, ISIS' spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called for attacks on all countries that have joined coalition airstrikes against the group. However, it is notable that he focuses particularly on the "spiteful and filthy French" as a target for ISIS-inspired attackers.

This line is repeated in their most recent Dabiq issue, in which the group, claiming to speak on behalf of all Muslims, asserts that they will continue "flanking the crusaders on their own streets and bringing the war back to their own soil". ISIS warns that "there will be others who follow the examples set" by the likes of Bertrand Nzohabonayo, a convert who was shot dead in an attack on police in Joue-les-Tours in December.

Nzohabonayo's attack was not in isolation. In the past month, in addition to his attack we have seen a flurry of lone attacks in France, including a man shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) as he drove into a crowd in the city of Dijon and a man driving a van into a Christmas market in Nantes. Meanwhile, a French national remains the main suspect for a shooting in a Jewish museum in Belgium earlier in 2014. An early prelude to the current spate of attacks can be seen in a brutal attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. Over the Christmas period 300 soldiers were deployed around the country to boost security.

This series of attacks has coincided with dozens of raids conducted in December by counter-terror police across Normandy, Paris and Toulouse in an effort to dismantle a network facilitating the transportation of foreign fighters to the Middle East. There has been growing concern in the country over the number of French citizens joining jihadi groups abroad. At least 700 French citizens are thought to have gone out to fight in Iraq and Syria, the highest absolute number in Western Europe.

France was shocked by the participation of two citizens in ISIS beheading videos.

In late November 2014, the country was shocked by the apparent participation of two of its citizens in brutal ISIS beheading videos circulated online. The shock was compounded by the fact that both of these men, Maxime Hauchard and Mickaël Dos Santos, were described as successful, well-integrated members of their local communities, and both came from non-Muslim family backgrounds. Indeed, a report released in November by the Paris-based study centre CPDSI demonstrated that new extremist discourses in France are now appealing to a wide range of young people, not just those considered 'at risk' according to traditional criteria for radicalisation, such as familial or socio-economic background.

Many of those known to have joined ISIS are converts, including from financially comfortable and secular backgrounds. French media has reported that as many as 20% of French jihadis in Syria are converts who left within months of their conversion.

While we do not yet know how precisely the Charlie Hebdo attackers were radicalised, there has been a clear rise in the influence and reach of ISIS propaganda which calls for citizens to carry out attacks in their own countries. Whoever ultimately claims this attack, it falls within that wider Salafi-jihadi ideological current.


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