What can we learn from the recent terrorist attacks in Paris? Here are eight lessons.
1. Terrorism has many audiences. The terrorist attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris caused worldwide revulsion, provoked denunciations by Muslim leaders, and prompted millions to march for the right of free expression, which, according to French authorities, was the largest demonstration in French history. In other words, from the terrorists’ perspective, the bloody attack was a great success.
The attack attracted worldwide attention, caused fear and alarm, and allowed the killers to burnish their reputation as warriors. Dressed in black and armed with automatic weapons, they carried out their cold-blooded mission and escaped, at least for a short while. Observers described the terrorist operation as well planned, its execution competent—the attackers “seemed comfortable with their weapons,” said one former U.S. official. Of course, no one was shooting back, which makes things more comfortable. The attackers made a few mistakes—initially going to the wrong address, killing a policeman who turned out to be Muslim, and leaving behind an identity card in the getaway car—but the attack does stand in contrast to the recent spate of shootings, stabbings, and car-ramming attacks by jihadist loons.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility. Its strategists see communicating their message as 50 percent of the struggle. Almost all wartime propaganda is aimed at the homefront. The attack will hearten jihadists everywhere and gives al-Qaida a propaganda victory over its rival, ISIS, which had no choice but to also praise the attackers. Beyond the jihadist universe, revenge against those who would insult the prophet is applauded even among those who reject its violent delivery.
2. We participate in the creation of terror. Competitive news coverage, sober assessments alongside fear-mongering, and the perceived necessity for political leadership to respond combine to inflate the threat. The assault on Charlie Hebdo was the worst terrorist attack in France since the Algerian War more than 50 years ago. Anxiety demands visible action. France deployed 10,000 troops and 5,000 more cops. The United States issued a worldwide travel advisory, warning Americans to beware of the potential for new “terrorist actions and violence” everywhere. These steps are necessary, but they also elevate the terrorists and the threat they appear to pose.
Network news and 24-hour news channels mobilized countless talking heads to condemn the violence. Many seemed determined to frighten the audience—the doomsayers get the most attention. Good form requires expressions of sympathy for the victims followed by tough talk—bowed heads and clenched fists. Anything else risks accusations of ignoring the peril, weakness, aiding the enemy.
For government officials, it is an opportunity to share their concerns about the challenges they face and the resources they require. Others take the opportunity to advance political agendas, criticizing feckless governments for not doing more to stop the terrorists before they strike.
3. Al-Qaida remains a threat. While America’s attention has recently focused on defeating ISIS, the Paris attack underscores al-Qaida’s continuing commitment to terrorist attacks against the “far enemy.” The United States remains at the top of the list. Despite the American-led bombing campaign, ISIS has yet to launch terrorist attacks outside of the region, although that could come. Meanwhile, al-Qaida’s central command, and especially its Yemen-based affiliate, remain dedicated to attacks on the United States.
This threat is multidimensional. Relentless pursuit has made it extremely difficult for al-Qaida to launch terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11, but this has hardly rendered the group powerless. Al-Qaida reportedly sent veteran fighters and planners from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria to seek Western recruits among jihadist volunteers for terrorist missions in the West. Both AQAP and ISIS urge their supporters abroad to carry out terrorist actions at home. Experienced fighters returning from Syria and Iraq add another layer to the threat as demonstrated by the shootouts and arrests in Belgium following the Paris attack.