The Repercussions of Charlie Hebdo: Time for a New Strategy?

On Jan. 7, two French brothers of Algerian descent stormed into the Charlie Hebdo offices in the 11th arrondissement of Paris and unleashed a barrage of bullets onto the magazine’s employees during a weekly staff meeting. In total, the attack took the lives of 12 individuals while injuring 11 others. The attackers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that has consistently coordinated attacks against Western interests. The Kouachi brothers targeted Charlie Hebdo for their cartooned portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, an action that is regarded as heretical by many Muslims.

Two days later, a French citizen of Malian descent murdered a municipal police officer on patrol in Montrouge before taking 19 people hostage and killing four in a Porte de Vincennes kosher supermarket. The attacker, Amedy Coulibaly, had been an acquaintance of Cherif Kouachi, and had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the preceding weeks. Coulibaly’s selection of the kosher supermarket as a target was apparently tied to its largely Jewish clientele.

What ensued was nothing short of a global reaction. On Jan. 11, two days after the killings at the supermarket and the subsequent deaths of the attackers by French police forces, France held a Paris Unity March, which attracted over 3 million people, including an unprecedented number of world leaders. Yet in many predominantly Muslim countries, people took to the streets to express outrage at Charlie Hebdo’s inflammatory and offensive cartoons; some protestors went so far as to declare the attackers heroes. In Germany, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) organized rallies denouncing the influx of Muslim immigrants in Europe.

The fallout from the attacks is complex in nature. The various responses underscore not only the violent threat posed by Islamist terrorist groups, but also the isolation felt by many Muslim youths living in Europe’s cities. They highlight the debate over the ambiguities in the term “freedom of expression”; at what point does defiling the tenets of a specific religion cross the line? And they emphasize a growing hostility to both Jewish and Muslim communities throughout Europe. But most importantly, the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher supermarket represent a stale method that has neither the firepower nor the stamina to uproot the present Islamic extremist movement.

The present strategy appears to primarily be one of military action. The United States, for example, has used drone strikes to take out high-level Al-Qaeda operatives. The recently formed coalition against ISIS has conducted numerous airstrikes on Islamic State targets and outposts. The United States has begun arming moderate Syrian rebels to fight both extremist factions like ISIS and the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad. But where has the West focused on addressing the root of the problem? What drives young people in America, in Europe, in the Middle East to join vicious groups whose stated purpose is to kill? Why have noted terrorist suspects been able to slip through the cracks of the intelligence community?

Perhaps the most troubling conclusion is that there clearly is no Band-Aid solution. Authorities knew both the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly; they had spent time in French prisons and were all on a United States terrorist watchlist. France, along with an American-led coalition, has already carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. French troops have conducted missions in Mali and other parts of Africa to drive out Islamist militants. Recently, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a 735-million-euro plan to increase France’s anti-terror budget, despite an agreement with the European Union to reduce its national deficit.

The need to continue the fight against extreme Islamist ideology is apparent. But the strategy of a robust military commitment seems to simply stall eventual attacks. In the short-term, the bombing of an ISIS or AQAP convoy by coalition jets is a military success, but it is not a long-term solution to defeat the broad scope of Islamic extremism. Counterterrorism officials must devise a new strategy that creates a more attractive option than the extreme ideology posed by terrorist groups. Through education reform, economic investment and social media, the West can combat the threat of terror. A military operation conducted on a terrorist group may cripple the specific organization, but it will not eliminate the danger of the movement. Only an attack on the ideology of Islamic extremism can fully eradicate the potency of Islamist terrorism.