The first days of 2015 in France will be forever associated with the Charlie Hebdo attack. As the largest ever terrorist act on the country's soil, it was instantly labelled by the media as “the French 9/11”. The Paris shooting spree, however, lasted for three days. The first attack took place on the morning of January 7, 2015. The target of the two masked gunmen armed with assault rifles was the office of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Over 50 shots were fired and 12 people killed there, including a policeman who tried to stop the perpetrators from fleeing the crime scene. The next day a female officer was murdered in the southern suburb of Montrouge by a separate attacker. On December 9, the same man killed four hostages in a kosher grocery store in Paris demanding the release of the Charlie Hebdo shooters. The terrorist was gunned down by the police in a rescue raid. Another police operation was conducted simultaneously 25 km from Paris in Dammartin-en-Goele, where the Charlie Hebdo attackers were holding a hostage at a printworks office. All three terrorists died in a shootout. By that time the world media had already unveiled the identities of the attackers, who themselves claimed to belong to Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen.
The Charlie Hebdo shooters were brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi. According to the French judicial documents, both were French citizens born in Paris to a family of Algerian immigrants, and they were orphaned at a young age and placed in a foster home. Cherif Kouachi was first arrested in 2005 at the age of 22, when he attempted to leave to Syria and then fight American troops in Iraq. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison, where he met Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who killed a policewoman and hostages in a kosher store. Coulibaly was a son of Malian immigrants, born and raised in the suburbs of Paris. Like the Kouachi brothers he is believed to have been a member of the Buttes-Chaumont network, a radical group recruiting young jihadists. In 2008 Cherif Kouachi was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to another 3 years in prison. Meanwhile, his brother Said visited Yemen twice where he trained with al-Qaeda fighters. French authorities monitored the brothers but the surveillance was lifted in spring of 2014.
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Kouachi brothers contacted the BFM TV and told the editor the shootings were revenge for their disrespect of the Prophet Muhammad, whose controversial caricatures often appeared on the pages of the satirical newspaper. Charlie Hebdo has long been a target of jihadist organizations, so it didn't come as a surprise when the day after the attack al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the terrorist act. What did surprise the investigators though was the almost professional military efficiency of the perpetrators. The fact that homegrown extremists are turning from amateurs into killers with real combat experience, is transforming the issue of radicalisation from political and social in scale, to one which now affects national security, said François Heisbourg, a defense analyst and special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, in Paris.
“This is much closer to a military operation than anything we’ve experienced in France, and that may limit the political impact. Between this attack and whatever real societal problems we have in France, there is a great gap. These were not corner-shop guys from the suburbs.”
With as many as six million Muslims currently living in France, according to the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research, the country has been a target for jihadi propagandists and recruiters. It is no secret that young French Muslims have been leaving the country to fight in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. It was only in 2014 that the French authorities revealed that at least 2,000 of the country's citizens have traveled to Iraq and Syria as militants. Add to this the ongoing campaign of ISIL urging the Muslims to bring the fight to their Western homelands, and the colonial history of many European countries in the Middle East and Africa and you will see why this issue is threatening to turn into a large-scale clash of societies, said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, in London.
“This is a dangerous moment for European societies. With increasing radicalization among supporters of jihadist organizations and the white working class increasingly feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head. Large parts of the European public are latently anti-Muslim, and increasing mobilization of these forces is now reaching into the center of society. If we see more of these incidents, and I think we will, we will see a further polarization of these European societies in the years to come.”
However, the French public managed to refrain from the Islamophobic outburts and demonstrated an extraordinary example of national unity after the attacks. On January 11, nearly two million people, including over 40 world leaders, marched through Paris in a rally dedicated to the victims of the shootings. Almost 4 million fellow citizens joined the demonstration across France. The so-called march of unity brought together people of all races and religions under the slogan "Je suis Charlie", which means "I am Charlie". Nevertheless, the deep ideological and civilisational divide became evident in the following days, when millions of people came out on the streets in Muslim countries protesting against the publications of the Charlie Hebdo drawings in Western media outlets. They used the reversed motto of their opponents, chanting "I am not Charlie". And this is the voice that the West, struggling with radicalization, cannot ignore.