Two days ago, French terrorists attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly newspaper of satire and political commentary published in Paris. The terrorists who attacked the paper were deeply offended by cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that the paper had published. The attack occurred after the paper persisted in publishing similar cartoons, ignoring warnings not to do so.
You can see the cartoons online, e.g., here and here. They do not appeal to me. However, Charlie Hebdo should have the legal right to publish those cartoons – or any other cartoons they desire to publish. In the past, Charlie Hebdo has also heavily satirized Christianity, Judaism, other religions, and most major institutions in France. Free speech, of which a free press is a very important expression, is an essential of a healthy, free, pluralistic society.
France has responded to the attack exactly as I recommend in my book, Just Counterterrorism:
- With courage: people have persevered in their daily lives and taken to the streets of Paris to demonstrate their public support for the paper's right to publish the materials of its choice;
- With prudence: France has place in a terror threat warning system similar to that in the US, encouraging people to take effective measures to reduce their vulnerability;
- With justice: the French have not condemned all Muslims, indeed French Muslims have declared their support for Charlie Hebdo's right to publish the cartoons; the French have also pursued the terror suspects relying upon law enforcement personnel and standard protocols;
- With temperance: though shaken by the attack, the French have responded with confident assurance, knowing that the attack, horrendous though it was, did not jeopardize their nation or way of life.
Ironically, the attack has further the aims of Charlie Hebdo in a way probably unimaginable to the publisher even a week ago. Few people outside of France were aware of Charlie Hebdo, with its small circulation of about 100,000 copies per week, before the attack. A significant number of people aware of Charlie Hebdo disagreed with its politics or found its satire crude if not objectionable. Today, Charlie Hebdo has become a cause célèbre and probably millions of people have seen the cartoons that the attackers found offensive.
Counterterrorism authorities are uncertain if the attackers acted as a small group or as part of a larger organization, such as al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Initial assessments are that the latter appears unlikely. Most probably, propaganda on the internet from a group such as AQAP inspired the three men, all of whom are thought to be French nationals, though of Algerian heritage. If that is correct, then the attack demonstrates more of what I argue in Just Counterterrorism. That is, that a small group (e.g., 3 men) may conduct a serious attack but cannot pose an existential threat to a state. Additionally, terror groups, to have any chance of success, must espouse a cause that resonates with their intended enabling constituency. The overwhelming condemnation of the attack by Muslims internationally, and especially within France, underscores that these criminals lack that support.
No state can completely avoid terror attacks by lone individuals or small groups.
However, this attack also underscores that no terror group inherently poses an intractable, unsolvable problem. The Just Counterterrorism Model proposed in Just Counterterrorism provides an approach to counterterrorism that is ethical, flexible, effective, and comprehensive.