Where do we go from here?
By now, the general outline of the Paris terror attacks are well known. In all, 17 people died in the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, and on a kosher market by Amedy Coulibaly. Many world leaders (minus any high-ranking representation from the United States) gathered in Paris on Sunday to display a united front against Islamic extremism. And France announced Monday it was putting an extra 10,000 soldiers on the streets and hunting for accomplices.
For a good accounting of where the investigation stands, it’s worth looking at this piece by BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner. As Gardner makes clear, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the extent to which the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly knew each other, where they drew their inspiration and whether they acted on their own or were carrying out attacks conceived elsewhere.
Those questions will have to be answered by the security services of France and its allies. The most pressing question for the rest of us is what the attack says about the threat of more such violence in Europe or the U.S.
The investigation will help answer that question. But there also are broader trends at work that allow us to get a start on it.
First, it’s clear that the threat of terrorism is not over. The terrain has changed dramatically since the Sept. 11 attacks and their immediate aftermath. We may be far less fixated on the danger than we were a decade ago. Osama Bin Laden is dead. Many of his most dangerous lieutenants have been killed or captured. The U.S. has withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan, and until returning to Iraq this past year, was done with that conflict, too.
With Bin Laden’s organization weakened, the global jihadi movement atomized into smaller groups, most of which were more focused on regional conflicts and issues than an immediate confrontation with the West. Regardless, intelligence agencies threw vast resources at confronting them.
Then came the Arab Spring and the ensuing chaos. The Syrian civil war and the descent of Iraq back into conflict have given the extremists a huge boost. Foreign fighters have flooded in, not only from the Middle East but from Europe (especially from close American allies Britain, France and Germany) and the U.S. as well. Syria and Iraq both lie on the fault line between the two main strains of Islam, lending a religious fervor to the conflict for many of the new recruits.
And while the focus still is largely regional, leaders of the so-called Islamic State that controls much of Syria and Iraq have declared they have bigger ambitions. France is a particular target.
Coulibaly said he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State. The Kouachi brothers said their allegiance was to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – the strongest offshoot of Bin Laden’s network, which has failed in previous plots against the U.S. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been competing to lead the overall movement. Is the competition now going to extend to attacks against the West?
Their claims notwithstanding, it is important to be clear-eyed about the exact scope and nature of the threat. Ever since the flood of foreign fighters started moving to Syria and Iraq, analysts have fretted over what will happen when they come home again. And while many officials have warned publicly of the danger, not everyone believes the threat is dire.
Plenty of those foreign fighters will die on the battlefield — fighting either government forces or other militants. Others will leave home with no intent to ever come back. Still others will be tired or disillusioned, the argument goes.
Most attacks in Europe so far have been relatively small-scale, and the fears are a matter of degree. Analysts largely agree that the numbers of foreign fighters is so large that even a small percentage can be a significant concern. And in the extremists’ wired world, one can also become radicalized without leaving home. So authorities will need to keep a close watch on the home front, as well.
Both Kouachi brothers are said to have visited Yemen, but many others now gain inspiration from extremists based in Europe or from video messages easily viewed on line. One name that keeps coming up is that of Djamel Beghal. Another is Anwar Awlaki, an American killed in a highly controversial U.S. drone strike in 2011.
What these newly radicalized jihadis, as numerous as they are, have yet to show is that they are capable of violence on anywhere near the scale of the previous generation. As horrifying as the Paris attacks were, the toll was much lower than bombings on public transportation in London in 2002 and Madrid in 2004 – much less the September 11 plot.
Still, they have shaken France deeply, and along with it, much of the Western world. If terrorism has an intellectual foundation, this is it: choosing a target and a means of attack that ensures a disproportionate impact.