President Obama has run into harsh criticism, both at home and abroad, for not attending this week’s Paris protest march or sending a high-level substitute in his place. French and European leaders, meanwhile, have won widespread praise for their aggressive and bold stand against jihadists.
Yet it’s the European reaction that plays right into Al Qaeda’s hands, and the Americans who are actually taking the wiser approach by not turning the Paris terror attacks into a giant battle for civilization—and Charlie Hebdo into a rallying cry for free speech. It was hardly a surprise that the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appeared eager to claim responsibility Wednesday for the attacks. But for Al Qaeda, a triumph isn’t complete until it gets a reaction.
And, wow, did it ever get a reaction in Europe—precisely the wrong kind.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Western governments–the United States included–have struggled to grasp the challenge posed by al Qaeda’s strategy. They still seem all-too-mystified about how to respond and extinguish the enduring appeal that al Qaeda’s ideology seems to have for young Muslims. The world’s most infamous terrorist group—at least until Islamic State burst on to the scene last year—has in turn spent decades trying to figure out how to instigate a global Muslim rebellion against the West. It has always relied on a sort of geopolitical judo, using its enemies’ strength against them by making them prove its own worldview.
This strategy has succeeded to a greater degree among Muslim communities in Europe compared to the United States. In Europe, in general, Al Qaeda has found it easier to win over angry young European Muslims—as has the Islamic State—because it has found a pliable audience and exploited it. The most effective way to convince a target audience to buy into a rhetorical vision is to echo and respond to their grievances. In other words, use their existing complaints to make them sign up to your plan to fix things. Globally, al Qaeda’s problem has always been that although average Muslims have many long-standing complaints about Western foreign policy—such as support for Israel and Arab dictatorships—the vast majority were not ready to subscribe to its remedy of war and harsh religious law.
In response, Al Qaeda has sought to overcome this lack of interest among Muslims by trying to polarize Muslim and Western views, and here is where it has had a great deal of success in Europe, far less so in the United States. The Muslim underclass in many of these European countries is already polarized, and the over-the-top reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings is only exacerbating that trend. The idea, as stated in the jihadi strategy document “Management of Savagery,” is to “transform societies into two opposing groups, igniting a violent battle between them whose end is either victory or martyrdom.” The best way to make sure the intended audience understands the justification for the attack is to make the attack itself self-explanatory, the strategists behind the document say. Clearly, the targeting of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine well known for printing images that many, if not most, Muslims would find offensive, but were seen as part of a cherished European tradition of free expression, fit very comfortably in this strategy.
True to Al Qaeda’s methodology, the attack is sharpening differences between communities and isolating European Muslims from their countrymen. Thanks to the efforts of European leaders and opinion makers to show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo by embracing its humor—and the now-ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” slogan—many mainstream Muslims are resentful about the impossible choice they are being forced into: To demonstrate they do not support murder, they must show support for images they find offensive. Demands that European Muslims condemn the attacks serve to make many feel that they are seen as guilty until they prove themselves innocent. The focus on freedom of speech also re-opens simmering accusations from Muslim Europeans of double standards; in the days after the Hebdo attacks, a notorious French comedian known for his anti-Semitic comments, Dieudonne, was actually arrested for posting an offensive comment on his Facebook page. Overall, the direction of the public debate plays directly into Al Qaeda’s narrative that Muslims cannot live in the West without demeaning themselves. Meanwhile, the increase in anti-Muslim violence in the wake of the attacks reinforces the idea that Muslims are in danger and under siege.
Even Pope Francis has weighed in, oddly enough, on the side of offended Muslims and against the lionization of Charlie Hebdo. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” the pope said on Thursday, giving voice to seething Muslim resentment.
More worrying is the messaging being directed towards young, criminalized Muslims. While the attack was still underway, television channels around the world played images of the Kouachi brothers—the two terrorists who broke into the Charlie Hebdo offices—getting out of a car, moving along a street and shooting dead an injured policeman. News anchors described them in terms verging on awe, mentioning frequently that they seemed “highly trained” and “skilled in military tactics.” Such coverage glamorizes an act to an audience that is excited by the idea of instant recognition and adulation. According to one account of the hostage drama at the kosher market in Paris after the Hebdo killings, while the standoff was going on the gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, spent a lot of his time monitoring what was being said about him in the media—and grew very angry that new channels were not reporting that he had killed people.